An introduction to language endangerment

Imagine you are the last person who speaks your language. No one else knows the same songs you do, says hello in the same way, or uses your names for plans and animals. Jokes you make are never as funny when you have to translate them.

Eleme speaker

"Emperor" J. D. Nkpe, a speaker of Eleme and Greg Anderson, 2004.

Ho speaker

Mr. K. C. Naik Biruli, Ho speaker

There are people around the world in this situation—people who grew up speaking one language and watched as the generations after them spoke a different language, never learning language of their community.

Ifugao speaker

Butway, an Ifugao elder and shaman, chants the genealogies over a sacrifice of grain, chicken, and pork to bless the rice harvest. (Photo David Harrison, 2001)

Ös speakersYuri and Anna Baydasheva and David Harrison in 2003. The Baydashevs are the last known household where a couple speaks to each other in Ís. By 2005, Yuri had suffered a significant hearing loss, limiting his ability to communicate. (Photo Greg Anderson, 2003)

A language dies every 14 days. A language dies when the last speaker of that language dies, and the world loses the knowledge that was contained in that language. Even before the last speaker dies, a language is useless when it no longer defines a community and cannot be used to communicate meaning.

Siletz speaker

Greg Anderson interviews Siletz speaker Bud Lane

Remo speaker

Mr. Sukhra Madji, Remo speaker

Each picture on this page is of a last speaker, or someone who could be in their lifetime. We invite you to learn more about them and their languages.

Tofa speaker 1

Ivan Skoblin, one of the last 25 speakers of Ís, a Turkic language of Central Siberia.

Half of the languages spoken today are expected to vanish during this century. That means that language extinction is happening at a much faster rate than species extinction.

Species vs. Language Endangerment chart

Levels of endangerment in animal and plant groups compared to endangerment in human languages. Based on data in Sutherland, William J. (2003). Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species. Nature 423: 276-279.

Many of these languages have never been recorded: they have no dictionaries, no books, no sound recordings. When the last speaker of an unrecorded language dies, it leaves no traces.

Kallawaya speaker

Antonio Condori, Kallawaya speaker and herbalist

Ifugao youth

An Ifugao youth carries bundles of freshly harvested rice to the granary. (Photo David Harrison, 2001)

Ifugao elder

An Ifugao elder observes the rice harvest with her son. (Photo David Harrison, 2001)

Language extinction is a worldwide crisis. When we lose a language, we lose:

Cultural heritage - Language is one of the things that defines a culture, both through who speaks it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea can never be translated exactly into another language. Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures, with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations, but no written form of the language. Without speakers of these languages, an entire culture is lost.

Knowledge about the natural world - Most endangered languages are spoken by indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years. These languages have developed words that hold huge amounts of information about the natural world, with information about species or natural phenomena that has not been recorded by scientists. Learning from these groups may be key to preserving species and ecosystems.

Knowledge about the human brain - Each human language teaches us about how the human brain can work. Without studying each language spoken in the world, we will never understand all the ways humans can communicate and store knowledge. Every time a language dies, we lose part of the picture of what our brains can do.

Fast Facts

Quiz Questions