An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers, and becomes a "dead language". If eventually no one speaks the language at all, it becomes an "extinct language". While languages have always gone extinct throughout human history, they are currently disappearing at an accelerated rate due to the processes of globalization and neo-colonialism, where the economically powerful languages dominate other languages. More commonly spoken languages dominate the less commonly spoken languages and therefore, the less commonly spoken languages eventually disappear from populations. The total number of languages in the world is not known. Estimates vary depending on many factors. The general consensus is that there are between 6000 and 7000 languages currently spoken, and that between 50-90% of those will have become extinct by the year 2100. The top 20 languages spoken by more than 50 million speakers each, are spoken by 50% of the world's population, whereas many of the other languages are spoken by small communities, most of them with less than 10,000 speakers.
UNESCO operates with five levels of language endangerment: "safe", "vulnerable" (not spoken by children outside the home), "definitely endangered" (children not speaking), "severely endangered" (only spoken by the oldest generations), "critically endangered" (spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers). Using an alternative scheme of classification, linguist Michael E. Krauss defines languages as "safe" if it is considered that children will probably be speaking them in 100 years; "endangered" if children will probably not be speaking them in 100 years (approximately 60-80% of languages fall into this category); and "moribund" if children are not speaking them now.
There is a general consensus that the loss of languages harms the cultural diversity of the world. Many projects are under way aimed at preventing or slowing this loss by revitalizing endangered languages and promoting education and literacy in minority languages. Across the world many countries have enacted specific legislation aimed at protecting and stabilizing the language of indigenous speech communities. A minority of linguists have argued that language loss is a natural process that should not be counteracted, and that documenting endangered languages for posterity is sufficient. Few speakers of endangered languages consider it a good thing that their indigenous language might be lost, although many consider that switching to a majority language is likely to alleviate social stigma and increase economic opportunities. However the vast majority of speakers of endangered languages consider the loss of their language to be a vital break with their cultural identity and tradition, and many work actively to counteract the impending language loss, often working closely with linguists in revitalization projects. Recognizing that most of the world's endangered languages are unlikely to be revitalized, many linguists are working on documenting the thousands of languages of the world about which little or nothing is known. Their work may prove helpful both for the science of linguistics and in the future for the descendants of the speech communities, should they wish to learn about their ancestral language after it has become extinct.
Famous quotes containing the words endangered and/or language:
“Government ... thought [it] could transform the country through massive national programs, but often the programs did not work. Too often they only made things worse. In our rush to accomplish great deeds quickly, we trampled on sound principles of restraint and endangered the rights of individuals.”
—Gerald R. Ford (b. 1913)
“The great pines stand at a considerable distance from each other. Each tree grows alone, murmurs alone, thinks alone. They do not intrude upon each other. The Navajos are not much in the habit of giving or of asking help. Their language is not a communicative one, and they never attempt an interchange of personality in speech. Over their forests there is the same inexorable reserve. Each tree has its exalted power to bear.”
—Willa Cather (18731947)