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An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use. If it loses all its native speakers, it becomes an extinct language.

The total number of contemporary languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on the extent and means of the research intended to discover them, the definition of a distinct language and the current state of knowledge concerning the identities and vital statistics of the various peoples of the earth. Even the number of languages that are known varies as some of them become extinct or are newly discovered within the lifetimes of the active investigators.

One of the most active research agencies is SIL International, which maintains a database, Ethnologue, kept up-to-date by the contributions of linguists globally. Its 2005 count of the number of languages in its database, excluding duplicates in different countries, is 6912, of which 32.8% (2269) are in Asia and 30.3% (2092) are in Africa. This contemporary tally must be regarded as a variable number within a range. Michael E. Krauss reported in 2007: "The worldwide total figure I have been using is 6000 extant languages, a nice round figure that happens to be one millionth of the human population, a kind of middle figure ...."

Krauss goes on to define languages as "safe" if children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; "endangered" if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years; and "moribund" if children are not speaking them now. If 5-10% are safe and 15-30% are moribund then the endangered languages amount to 60-80% or 3600-4800 languages. Krauss' safe languages have over a million speakers, an arbitrary threshold. The not-safe languages, both moribund and endangered together, amount to about 50%, or 3000 languages. This is a non-mathematical and somewhat imprecise expectation that an average of 30 languages per year will have reached the brink of extinction between 2000 and 2100.

UNESCOmarker, heavily influenced by Michael Krauss and Stephen Wurm, adopted the 6000 round figure and the "new speaker" criterion in attempting to define endangered languages. Asserting that "Language diversity is essential to the human heritage" the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages offers this definition of an endangered language: "... when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children." Currently the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger subdivides the former "endangered" category into "unsafe", "definitely endangered", "severely endangered" and "critically endangered." UNESCO's Red Book of Endangered Languages uses the classification "potentially endangered," "endangered" and "severely endangered."

Identifying endangered languages

While there is no definite threshold for identifying a language as endangered, three main criteria are used as guidelines:
  1. The number of speakers currently living.
  2. The mean age of native and/or fluent speakers.
  3. The percentage of the youngest generation acquiring fluency with the language in question.

Some languages, such as those in Indonesiamarker, may have tens of thousands of speakers but be endangered because children are no longer learning them, and speakers are in the process of shifting to using the national language Indonesian (or a local Malay variety) in place of local languages.

In contrast, a language with only 100 speakers might be considered very much alive if it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) language of all children in that community (most of Andaman languages, actually spoken).

UNESCO's online Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger categorises 2,500 languages in five levels of endangerment: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

Reviving endangered languages

Once a language is determined to be endangered, there are two basic steps that need to be taken in order to stabilize or rescue the language. The first is language documentation and the second is language revitalization.

Language documentation is the process by which the language is documented in terms of its grammar, its lexicon, and its oral traditions (e.g. stories, songs, religious texts).

Language revitalization is the process by which a language community through political, community, and educational means attempts to increase the number of active speakers of the endangered language. This process is also sometimes referred to as language revival or reversing language shift.

Another option is "post-vernacular maintenance": the teaching of some words and concepts related to the lost language - rather than revival proper.


Additional Reading

  • .
  • Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered languages. Language, 68 (1), 1-42.
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518192-1.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2006). Keeping track of language endangerment in Australia. Denis Cunningham, David Ingram and Kenneth Sumbuk (eds). Language Diversity in the Pacific: Endangerment and Survival. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. 54-84.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2001). State of Indigenous languages in Australia - 2001 (PDF), Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1973). Linguistics in North America (parts 1 & 2). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Sebeok 1976).
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3468-0.

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