Global Trends
  1. Big languages get bigger

    This is not a new trend. The languages of powerful groups spread, whether through official language policies or the high prestige that speaking the imperial language can bring. For more on this trend, Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word (HarperCollins, 2005) traces the path of a number of these large languages.

  2. Small languages get smaller and die out.

    This is also not a new phenomenon, and it is clearly related to the first trend. As big languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the larger 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. For example, Northern California would have been a Language Hotspot 100 or maybe even 50 years ago; many of its small languages have died out recently.

    These two trends combined create very unequal numbers of speakers for the languages of the world.

    This graphic shows the uneven numbers of speakers of languages in the world. Nearly 80% of the world's population speaks only 83 (1.1%) of the world's languages. The 3,586 (51.2%) smallest languages are spoken by only 0.2% of the world's population.

  3. Language diversity is spread unevenly.

    • Bolivia
    • 37 languages
    • 18 genetic units
    • .486 genetic index

    Including Spanish. If we exclude Spanish, we have 36 languages and 17 genetic units, yielding a genetic index of .472.

    • Europe
    • 164 languages
    • 18 genetic units
    • .110 genetic index

    Source: Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

  • FactoidsSmall languages are using technology in revitalization efforts.

  • Bolivia has over twice the level of linguistic diversity as all of Europe combined.


    A narrow strip of Northern Australia, accounting for 10-15% of its landmass, has over three times the level of diversity found across Europe as a whole.


    Not all endangered languages are found in the Language Hotspots, since these latter require a concentration of endangered languages, not just individual examples. Such languages include Hawaiian, the Saami (Lapp) languages of Scandinavia, and Ainu of Japan (which was until the Second World War spoken in Eastern Siberia as well).


    Some areas used to be Hotspots but most of the languages have disappeared. Two areas in which this is true include northern California and southern Oregon and ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia.


    In Anatolia/Mesopotamia Turkic has moved in, and Iranian and Semitic in some form remain until today, but Anatolian, Hurro-Urartian, Hattic, Sumerian and others have vanished, many practically without leaving any trace.


    In California and Oregon, a handful of speakers of a small number languages remain, but most groups have passed out of existence during the last 150 years.

    • As we have entered the 21st Century Indigenous communities around the globe have been using modern technology in earnest to help maintain and even revitalize their threatened and dying languages and culture. Thousands of tribal communities from East Africa, to the outback of Australia, to the forests of the Northwest Pacific Coast are creating educational programs to record the stories and oral traditions of their elderly last speakers.  Using cameras, film, and audio community members are creating powerful archives of material, as well as elaborate word dictionaries.  Passing the knowledge along to the younger generation has become of paramount importance and urgency. Without the younger generations speaking and understanding the words and stories of the ancestors, the language dies. And when the language dies the culture dies...
    • Language Maintenance and Revitalization


      Languages in danger of extinction must be nurtured much as endangered species must be given special protection. Without efforts to fight back, these language communities and humanity as a whole are set to lose a vast wealth of oral knowledge.


      Language maintenance is a program to foster opportunities for a threatened language to be used. the key is to find ways to support the continued use of the language, for example the implementation of bilingual or language-learning programs for school-aged children, or the establishment of a community forum where the language by the adults.


      Language Revitalization addresses the needs of an endangered speech community where language shift has already begun. Thus, language revitalization can be thought of as a process of reversing language shift or language decline. Opportunities for the language to be used need to be created, and the social attitudes that triggered the abandonment of the language need to be addressed as well. State or official support is key to ensuring long-term success of such programs. Two highly successful examples of language revitalization programs can be seen in Hawaiian and Maori. Another famous example of a successful revitalization program is demonstrated by Israeli Hebrew.


      Grassroots language revitalization movements in communities undergoing language shift, some with local government or educational authorities support are found around the world.The Expedition Team visits these centres as a regular part of the Language Hotspot Expeditions.


      For critically endangered languages, revitalization is crucially dependent on language documentation. Without the knowledge being recorded from its elderly last speakers, the language will never serve the community any purpose in the future. Languages are abandoned due to. The complex set of social, historical and economic reasons  that cause communities to abandon one language in favor of another may change over time, and a community that is shifting its language now, may have a better environment for the language to thrive in the future. However, a language has not been recorded, it can never be revitalized.


      For more on the topic of revitalization see Leanne Hinton (2001) “Language Revitalization: An Overview” published in Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale (editors) The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, pages 3-18 published by Academic Press, New York. 

    • This is a much newer trend than the other three. Small language groups are using technology, particularly the internet, to encourage interest in their language and culture, both within their community and throughout the world. Some examples of these efforts from Language Hotspots are: