Why are languages going extinct so rapidly?

Languages are abandoned when speakers come to think of them as socially inferior, tied to the past, traditional, backward, or economically stagnant. The current rapid decline of approximately one language every two weeks appears to be unprecedented in human history.

As dominant languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the larger, dominant language. Depending on social factors and attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or forget it as it falls out of use. This has been happening throughout human history, with an extreme acceleration in the recent past due to many complex social factors related to colonization.

What does humanity lose when a language dies?

A vast repository of human knowledge about the natural world, plants, animals, ecosystems, and cultural traditions is in the language. Every language contains the collective history of an entire people.

We are not only losing languages, but also linguistic diversity. We have identified over twenty Language Hotspots, which are defined as concentrated regions of the world having the highest level of linguistic diversity, the highest levels of endangerment, and the least-studied languages.

By our own calculations, there are approximately 470 genetic units within the Language Hotspots, compared with approximately 500-550 genetic units in the entire world. That means that most of the genetic units in the world are represented in hotspots, even though they only cover small geographic regions.

How many languages are there in the world?

Our calculations rely on knowing the total number of languages in the world, and how many people speak each language. There is no source that reliably lists every language and exact number of speakers in the world. We use a number of sources to obtain our figures, which are updated as we find newer or more accurate counts of languages. These sources are:

Our own expeditions — Undertaking our own research is the only way to ensure that we have an accurate, up-to-date picture of language communities.

National censuses — These often over- or under-count ethnic groups. They may lump small groups into a generic “other” category if they do not make up a certain percentage of the population. Some censuses count ethnic groups rather than language speakers.

ELCat – The Endangered Languages Catalogue, an online collaborative effort to protect global linguistic diversity. We are a proud partner of this initiative.

Ethnologue — The Ethnologue is the most extensive list of the world’s languages. It is compiled by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a missionary group dedicated to translating the Christian Bible into as many languages as possible. The Ethnologue relies on consultants to send in numbers of speakers. Their numbers are sometimes inflated by counting the number of people who identify with an ethnic group, rather than the number of speakers. If there is language shift among a community, the number of people in the ethnic group will always be larger than the number of speakers.

UNESCO – Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (formerly known as the UNESCO Atlas and Field Reports of Colleagues)

What is language revitalization?

Language revitalization addresses the needs of an endangered speech community where language shift has already begun. Thus, language revitalization can be thought of as the process of reversing language shift or language decline. Speakers create opportunities to use the language, and address the social attitudes that triggered the abandonment of the language.

Two highly successful examples of language revitalization programs are Hawaiian (spoken in the USA) and Maori (spoken in New Zealand). Grassroots language revitalization movements in communities undergoing language shift are found around the world. Many language groups are using technology, particularly the internet, to encourage interest in their language and culture.



What is Living Tongues Institute, and how is it supported?

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated solely to the documentation, maintenance, and revitalization of endangered languages globally. It develops and manages linguist-aided, community-led projects that promote the use of digital video, computers, and other modern information technology.

Staff members of Living Tongues Institute have successfully completed funded projects in India, Siberia, Native North America, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Mongolia and India. Salaries and benefits of Living Tongues Institute staff are wholly supported by grants and public donations.

How does Living Tongues conduct its work, and are there any safeguards in place to protect the rights of the speakers?

In accordance with the Federal Policy on the Protection of Human Subjects (DHHS Policy 45 CFR Part 46, effective August 19, 1991), the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages assumes the responsibility for the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects who participate in research and other activity projects conducted by, or under the supervision of, its staff and associates.

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has adopted a clear policy and has publicly posted a statement of research ethics that covers types of informed consent, safeguards to ensure the confidentiality of project participants, and the kinds of assumed risks that such projects entail. Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has an established protocol to ensure that all projects conducted under its institutional banner are subject to an extensive process of internal review as well as meeting stated policies of external funding agencies and collaborating or host institutions. We obtain written and/or oral (filmed) consent from all consultants for the use of all elicited data.

Community ownership of intellectual property is a primary consideration in all our work. We repatriate copies of all material we collect to the communities of origin. We give individual contributors the ability to limit or restrict access to their intellectual property as they see fit, and fully credit them in any publication.

What does Living Tongues do to assist endangered language communities?

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages seeks to facilitate dialogue between indigenous communities and the larger global community through informational awareness and bridging the technology gap between these worlds, allowing indigenous minority speech community members to integrate with, rather than assimilate to, the majority language communities, and to provide opportunities for such under-represented communities to cross the digital divide. Capacity building through technical training is a key part of realizing these aims.



If I were interested in pursuing a career in documenting endangered languages, where would I begin?

Read our Glossary to get a broad overview of the terms used in our field. Explore our Endangered Language Resource Page to learn about archive projects around the world, and community projects.

Is Living Tongues Institute hiring?

We are not currently hiring but hope to expand our team in the future. If you are highly qualified in the field of endangered language documentation, feel free to get in touch with us via our contact page.

Thanks for reading!

We are a non-profit research institute dedicated to documenting endangered languages around the world.