Global Language Loss: A Clearer Picture

Photo by Mike Cahill.
Dr. Gary Simons presents his poster at the 93rd annual LSA meeting in New York.

(January 2019) Dr. Gary Simons, SIL’s Chief Research Officer and Executive Editor of Ethnologue, presented current research on patterns of language loss in a poster session at the 93rd annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) in New York. 

Simons’ analysis of Ethnologue’s global dataset of over 7,500 languages reveals an average of 9 language deaths annually over the past 25 years. While not supporting the widely, but incorrectly, reported statement that “One language dies every 14 days,” the evidence still shows the pace of language loss rising at an alarming rate. Simons’ research projects that by the close of this century, 17 languages per year will be lost. 

Simons’ poster, as illustrated below, provides  a visual presentation of the global spread of language loss through a series of world maps. They depict the declining state of language vitality in 25-year intervals. From 1795 to the present, countries on the maps are colored to represent the percentage of indigenous languages that had either died by a given year or were doomed to die since children were no longer learning the language.

Eight SIL linguists participated in this 93rd LSA annual meeting, continuing SIL’s long history of LSA participation. In addition to Simons’ poster on spreading language loss, presentations by SIL scholars covered topics ranging from marked tones to noun case and inflection. Staff also interacted with LSA participants at SIL’s booth, which  represented SIL’s work in grammars, dictionaries and signed languages.

SIL linguists work in partnership with ethnolinguistic communities worldwide to support language preservation and development efforts. Publications by SIL staff are made available through SIL International Publicationsand the SIL Language & Culture Archives.

Click to enlarge graphic: Percentage of doomed or dormant indigenous languages by 25-year generations.