Languages dying out the world over

Linguistic diversity is threatened in all four corners of the Earth. That’s the message in a ‘map of endangered language “hotspots” compiled as part of a project called Enduring Voices, which is backed by the US National Geographic Society.

Most attempts to document linguistic diversity simply count the number of languages spoken in each geographic area. By this measure, Papua New Guinea — with more than 800 languages — stands out as the most diverse country.  Africa, meanwhile, boasts some 2,000 of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages.

However, neither feature in the top 5 language hotspots identified by David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon.

In place of a simple count, they have highlighted regions that host languages from a large number of distinct families, places where languages are most under threat of extinction, and where linguists have done little research.

The top 5 include some entries that may come as a surprise, such as Oklahoma and the south-west US, where Native American languages are rapidly dying out. Top of the list is northern and central Australia, with 153 languages from 62 families. They include Yawuru, spoken by just 3 people in Broome, Western Australia, putting it on the brink of extinction.

Languages are threatened worldwide as historically isolated populations with a distinct linguistic heritage get subsumed into societies where a few dominant languages hold sway.

This extinction crisis is so severe that the list of hotspots may change rapidly. Until about 60 years ago, for instance, northern California would have been in the top 10. Since then, English and Spanish have wiped out Native American languages in the area.

The approach was inspired by the concept of hotspots of threatened biodiversity, which has proved a powerful tool in getting people to think about conservation priorities.

Under the Enduring Voices project, the researchers intend to visit as many hotspots as possible and make recordings of the most endangered tongues.

Ultimately, though, saving languages lies with the communities themselves, says Harrison. Children need to feel their native languages matter, he says, so efforts such as airing local radio shows in these languages can make a difference.