Language Hotspots

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The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has identified roughly twenty Language Hotspots. They are areas of the world that are urgently in need of action and should be the areas of highest priority in planning future research projects and channeling funding streams. The above map is a working model, with the map changing as we work.

Language Hotspots represent areas where we find a concentration of three logically independent factors: a high average level of endangerment, a high degree of linguistic diversity (calculated on the level of language family not individual language) and a low average level of prior documentation.

The “Language Hotspots” approach was conceived and developed by Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson and Dr. K. David Harrison. It is a radically new way to look at the distribution of global linguistic diversity, to assess the threat of extinction, and to prioritize research.

Rather than simply counting languages, Hotspots take into account the number of language families (which we call “genetic units”) represented in an area to calculate linguistic diversity. Hotspots 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.

High genetic diversity — Most accounts of language diversity only look at the raw number of languages in an area. Our calculation of genetic diversity also considers how many genetic units are represented. A genetic unit is a grouping like the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc., all descended from Latin).

By looking at genetic diversity, we find areas in crucial need of scientific study. When an entire genetic unit dies we lose much more information than if we lose one branch of a family but not its close relatives. For example, if all speakers of Portuguese died, we would lose a lot of information, but we could learn a lot about the language by studying Spanish. If all the Romance languages vanished, though, we would not be able to learn much about them, even by studying more distantly related languages like German.

By our calculations, there are approximately 470 genetic units within 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.

High levels of endangerment — Language endangerment cannot be measured precisely. The number of speakers does not necessarily determine how endangered a language is. If those speakers include young children and the language is used in all parts of daily life, then a few speakers can maintain a language. A language with only elderly speakers that has not been passed on to younger generations may be endangered.

Low levels of documentation — We rank how much accessible information exists about a language. Examples of documentation are: writing systems, grammars, dictionaries, texts, and audio and video materials. We only count materials that are accessible, meaning resources that have been published and are in print, and have been translated into a widely-known language. These are ranked on a five-point scale, with a language receiving a point for:

  • Texts with translation
  • Short scholarly articles
  • Descriptive grammar
  • Lexicon (word list) or dictionary
  • Audio/Video materials with annotation

Living Tongues Institute collaborated with the National Geographic Society to produce an interactive Language Hotspots map.

Find online resources organized by Language Hotspot here.

Find out how you can support our work.

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K. David Harrison, left, and Greg Anderson, center, with Charlie Mungulda, right, who speaks Amurdag, an endangered language of northern Australia.

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