Endangered languages disappearing

(November 2008) According to statistics and research compiled from various sources worldwide in the last four years, approximately 91 languages have joined the roll of those no longer spoken. Language databases maintained by SIL International are used by the publication, Ethnologue: Languages of the World. SIL is also the designated Registration Authority for the ISO 639-3 set of three-letter language codes used globally to definitively identify any given language.

Since SIL began recording language statistics in 1950, 421 languages have been reported no longer in daily use. The rate at which little-known languages are going out of use is alarming and justifies the warnings about language death that linguists began making early in the last decade. This plight is one issue that benefits from the United Nations proclamation of 2008 to be the International Year of Languages [fix this].

Because languages are dynamic, variable and constantly changing, the total number of living languages in the world cannot be counted precisely. Current SIL tallies record 6,909 languages that are known to have living mother-tongue speakers. Learned by transmission from parent to child as the primary language of day-to-day communication, these languages are considered to be a person's first language.

Language endangerment is a serious concern to linguists and language planners. For a variety of reasons, speakers of some languages stop using their first language and begin using another. When parents use only a second language with their children, the intergenerational transmission of the language decreases and may even cease. Language endangerment is a matter of degree, and SIL uses the following criteria in its statistics:

  • A language is considered nearly extinct when the speaker population numbers fewer than 50. Since viable population thresholds vary by geographical location, other criteria may indicate that even a language with more than 50 speakers is seriously endangered. SIL counts 457 languages to be nearly extinct.
  • A language is considered dormant when it ceases to be spoken, but still functions for some people to help identify their heritage—a heritage language.
  • A language is considered extinct when almost no individuals identify the language as being part of their heritage.

A language becomes dormant or extinct when it is no longer spoken, though it may still exist in recordings, written records and transcriptions preserved through language documentation. These materials, along with dictionaries, grammars and other products of descriptive linguistics essential for people who wish to learn a dormant heritage language, the language of their ancestors.

Since its beginning in 1934, SIL has published more than 29,743 works about its research in more than 2,394 languages spoken in more than 70 countries. SIL promotes sustainable language development through research, translation, training and materials development for ethnolinguistic minority communities.

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