Losing our languages

I often point to Web sites like Google and Wikipedia as great examples of multilingual Web sites.

Google supports more than 120 languages and Wikipedia supports more than 150. Few other companies come close to supporting that many languages.

And yet there are thousands of languages in existence on this planet, most of which are not about to be found on Google or Wikipedia anytime soon. Sadly, many of these languages are suffering the fate of those who speak them.

According to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages:

Minority languages are being increasingly replaced by various politically, economically, or socio-culturally dominant ones. Every two weeks the last fluent speaker of a language passes on and with him/her goes literally hundreds of generations of traditional knowledge encoded in these ancestral tongues. Nearly half of the worldÂ’s languages are likely to vanish in the next 100 years.

So where are we losing the most languages? According to this AP article, here are the danger zones:

Language Hotspots

Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world’s most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.

Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia – 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.

Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan – 23 languages. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few elderly speakers.

Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent.

You can learn more at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. They’re doing their best to document these languages before the last speakers have left us.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.