Photo: See-ming Lee
Languages are dying quicker than they ever have before. By 2100, UNESCO estimates that half of the ~6,700 languages in the world may have disappeared. Every two weeks, a language is lost after its final living speaker dies, the Living Institute for Endangered Languages says.
We lose a lot when a language goes extinct. Not only do written and spoken words disappear, but culture is also lost. Languages can be translated for basic comprehension, but some words or phrases may be so specific to a culture that they are untranslatable.
Knowledge of the world and nature can vanish too. For thousands of years, indigenous groups have lived among particular animals and plants in nature. They have learned animals’ behaviors and experimented with different plants for medicines and cures. With so many indigenous languages undocumented, we lose valuable information about science and medicine when they go extinct.
In 2010, Boa Sr., the last fluent speaker of Bo, a language from the Bay of Bengal’s Andaman Islands, died at 85. Andamanese languages carry a rich history, tracing back 70,000 years to the first descendants of migrators from Africa. When Boa Sr. passed away, the language of Bo and the millennia of human heritage it represented also died.
National Geographic and Living Tongues have partnered on the Enduring Voices project to identify language hotspots — areas on each continent where languages are at the greatest risk of extinction — and help preserve these endangered languages.
1. Aboriginal languages — In Northern Australia, the languages of Aboriginal peoples are very endangered. According to Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 250 different indigenous languages existed in Australia when white settlers arrived in the late 1700s. Today, more than half are no longer spoken. The most threatened Aboriginal languages include Magati Ke, with three surviving speakers, and Amurdag, with one.
Central South America
2. Kallawaya — As dominant languages such as Spanish and Portuguese flourished, indigenous languages of Central South America died off. The Kallawaya, living in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, have worked as traditional healers since the days of the Inca Empire and maintained a secret language that holds information on thousands of medicinal plants. The language is passed between generations, but fewer than 100 speakers exist today.
3. Chipaya — The Chipaya language has also suffered as more speakers shift to speaking Spanish. 1,000 – 1, 500 speak the language in the southern highlands of Bolivia.
Northwest Pacific Plateau
Along the west coasts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, nearly zero children and few young adults speak the indigenous languages of their tribes. As the youth favor English, the indigenous languages become more endangered.
4. Siletz Dee–ni — In Oregon, the language Siletz Dee-ni used to be spoken by many natives, but now only one fluent speaker remains. At the Siletz Valley School, children are taught in the language twice a week in an effort to preserve it, according to this Huffington Post article.
The region of Eastern Siberia alone holds 10 language families. Such diversity of language causes a high risk of endangerment. Government policies ordering speakers of different languages to speak the national language intensifies this risk.
5. Mednyj Aleut — While most languages stem from a single parent language, Mednyj Aleut or Copper Island Aleut originates from two. Early speakers had one Russian parent and one Aleut. The form of Mednyj Aleut spoken today is similar to Aleut, mixed with some Russian words and verbs with Russian endings. Five speakers remain.
There are six language families in Central Siberia. With few elder speakers and government policies requiring people to only speak Russian, languages in the region are in jeopardy.
6. Tofa — People who spoke Tofa were originally hunters and gatherers who also herded reindeer. They used specific words in their line of work that can’t be translated into single words in other languages. Fewer than 30 people still speak Tofa.
Oklahoma contains the largest number of indigenous languages in the US. The region is home to local natives and groups from other areas in the US that were forcibly relocated there, creating a diverse array of languages.
7. Yuchi — Yuchi is difficult to identify with any other language. Most of the tribe’s members spoke it regularly, but in the early 20th century Yuchi began to die out when American Indian students were punished for speaking anything other than English in government boarding schools. In 2005, the tribe had five elders fluent in Yuchi.
Other endangered languages
8. Gaelic — The majority of people in Ireland speak English, but the country’s official tongue is Gaelic, also known as Irish. When the Irish economy boomed in the late-20th / early-21st centuries, more locals began speaking it as a sense of pride. Learning the language is required in many Irish schools, but since very few families speak it at home, it is considered endangered.
9. !Kung — In Namibia and Botswana, the !Kung began losing their language as they transitioned from a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle to herding cattle and farming — their daily spoken language evolved to prioritize the new means of existence over the old. The tribe has no writing system, making it more difficult to maintain their language.
10. Ainu — On Japan’s island of Hokkaido, 15 – 40 out of 30,000 people speak the language Ainu, according to Discovery. Laws in Japan forced people to speak Japanese rather than other languages, causing Ainu to become more endangered.