“A language disappears every two weeks” (1). Here is the shock announcement made by linguist Claude Hagège to highlight the urgency. According to UNESCO, almost half of today’s languages are expected to disappear by the end of the 21st century. Nowadays, less than 10 languages are spoken by 40% of the world’s population. This article focuses on endangered languages and the causes of their disappearance.
Overview of endangered languages
As years go by, languages are disappearing at an increasing rate. This worrying phenomenon is apparent on all continents, in more or less alarming proportions. UNESCO considers that around 3,000 languages are endangered worldwide with different levels of vitality (2), varying as shown in the table below.
The interactive online edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger presents the following data.
With a total of 1,113 languages, Asia is the region with the most endangered languages. Among the countries concerned, India is the most affected nation with 197 endangered languages followed by China (144 endangered languages), Indonesia (143), and Russia (131). In the American continent, almost 90% of the languages are disappearing. Note that all are indigenous languages (spoken by Native Americans). The countries most affected by these disappearances are the United States (191 endangered languages, 54 of which are already extinct), Brazil (190), Mexico (143) and Canada (87).
In the Pacific, Australia and Papua New Guinea (the most multilingual country in the world) are massively affected, with 108 and 98 languages endangered respectively. Finally, it should be noted that Africa and Europe are not spared from this phenomenon of declining languages, with a proportion in Europe that remains nonetheless lower than for the other continents.
Phenomena behind these disappearances
One of the fundamental reasons why half of the languages spoken are likely to disappear lies in the fact … that they are spoken! Indeed, the endangered languages are predominantly languages of oral tradition, making it difficult for linguists to collect data, but they do not give up hope.
Of course, one of the major factors behind these disappearances is the need to simplify trade and political exchanges. Throughout history, certain languages have been privileged (English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish and French) in order to serve as vectors of communication between different nations. In addition, from a deliberate (colonisation of an area) or unconscious (cultural domination) perspective, the linguistic compartmentalisation between two peoples has gradually given way to the disappearance of one language in favour of the other. This is the case, for example, of the majority of the states of America and Africa (mainly English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and French-speaking).
Another non-negligible aspect is the population flows following the urbanisation and industrialisation of areas. Furthermore, immigration phenomena imply that many families have gradually abandoned their native language, with a view to integration into a new society. A generation is enough to lose the heritage of a mother tongue.
Given this observation, since 2003, the United Nations has recognised linguistic diversity as “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”(3). Europe has also adopted protective measures, with the drawing up of a European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (4) in 1992. Therefore, in the face of this gradual decline, a number of actions (including the publication of the participative Atlas by UNESCO or the encouragement of learning minority languages) are carried out in order to raise awareness of authorities, communities of speakers, but also public opinion, in order to revitalise certain languages, and so maintain linguistic diversity throughout the world.
(1) Claude Hagège, Halte à la mort des langues (On the Death and Life of Language), Éditions Odile Jacob, September 2002.
(2) Oseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edition. Paris, UNESCO Publishing.