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The Comeback of Endangered Languages

It has been estimated that ‘a language dies every two weeks.’ However with the help of enthusiasts, some languages are being revitalised.

‘A language dies every two weeks.’

Back in 2002, that is what British Historian Andre Dalby wrote. It’s estimated that the world has about 7,000 languages and only a small amount of it is documented in places like dictionaries and grammar books. So what about the other languages? If nobody focuses on recording and practising them, there is a risk of them becoming extinct too. Sadly it’s been estimated that by the year 2100 we will have lost about half of the languages in use today.

There is hope though as linguists today are doing their best to preserve some of these languages. The Endangered Language Project is creating an online database of research and information but there are currently 141 languages that have been labelled as extinct or “sleeping.”

Endangered languages: sleeping man symbolising sleeping languages

Why are endangered languages disappearing?

Languages can become endangered for a number of reasons. Below are just a few examples of an exhaustive list:

  • Population decreases dramatically through events like war and disease
  • Children are not interested or are not encouraged to learn parents’ native language
  • Official language policies get introduced which discourage the use of specific languages
  • Prestige becomes attached to speaking an ‘imperial’ language.

It’s comeback time!

However there are encouraging signs that some countries are turning the tide against the loss of minority languages and, in some cases, are even seeing these languages flourish.

The UK is a perfect example of a revival of vanishing languages such as Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish. Without effort, it’s likely that these languages would have been forgotten. Out of all these, it’s Welsh that’s making the most successful comeback as it has the greatest legislative protection in the UK. In Wales, public bodies are required to produce and implement a Welsh Language Scheme, like all forms in Wales being available in both English and Welsh.

Interesting facts about the Welsh language

  • Welsh is a Celtic language and around 674,000 people speak Welsh in Wales.
  • Welsh is also spoken in Argentina in the small colony of Patagonia. Today there are still around 5,000 people who speak Welsh in that region.
  • Wales has the longest place name in Europe called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (try and pronounce that, go on, I dare you).
  • Some English words are derived from Welsh such as ‘corgi’, ‘flannel’ and ‘penguin'.
  • Mount Everest was named after Welshman Sir George Everest from Gwernvale, Breconshire.

Endangered languages: Mount Everest named after Welsh man George Everest

And it looks like Americans feel the same...

The US has undergone its own language revitalisation movement in the last several decades. Many Native American tribes are encouraging for their heritage and language to be remembered as numbers of their native speakers decrease.

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) created a campaign to educate members of the U.S. Congress about the benefits of Native American language revitalisation. Two bills have already been proposed to both Houses of Congress about this and even President Barack Obama openly supported the importance of the preservation of Native American languages and cultures during a 2014 town hall meeting.

Endangered languages: Native American dance

Why are endangered languages important to so many people?

Many people take pride in remembering the language their ancestors spoke. Some feel regret at not being able to speak their parents' or grandparents' native tongue and thus feel a lack of connection and identity. Reviving these languages isn't just about reviving semantics, it’s about remembering a lost heritage and culture that could benefit you even in the present day. Just because ‘times are changing’, it doesn't mean that past values have to disappear with it. Luckily there are also trained translators in these language combinations that can help, and good translation agencies will have these people on their books to help your translation needs.

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