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Endangered languages: What they are and why are they important

Endangered languages: What they are and why are they important

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Endangered languages. Image of a man from a remote tribe holding a stick and wearing a headband. This image is used to illustrate an article on endangered languages. Photo by Vincent Tan on Pexels license: https://www.pexels.com/photo/selective-focus-photography-of-man-holding-stick-wearing-headband-1050824/

What is an endangered language?

Do you know what is meant by the term, ‘endangered languages’? In order to understand the various life stages languages can go through, it is useful to view them as living, evolving organisms. Just like any living species, languages, too, can find themselves in the following vulnerable states. These are: definitely endangered; severely endangered; critically endangered or, indeed, dead.

For a language to be defined as endangered, it must be the case that children of native speakers of a given language no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in their home. They themselves may have exposure and acquire some knowledge of the language on a passive level. However, this would almost definitely guarantee that the generation after them would have little to no knowledge of the language. In lone, individual cases, this may only result in a heritage language being lost to descendants of migrants. But at a mass level, this could well guarantee the death of lesser spoken or minority languages. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the reasons why languages become endangered.

What languages are dying out?

Languages can become endangered and die out for an array of reasons, such as the following:

Reasons of prestige

This applies to situations where more than one language is spoken in a given context or society and the most prestigious language or dialect is preferred. Language prestige refers to positive social value attributed to a specific language. This therefore leads to its wider use and preference within society. It’s often the language spoken by people in positions of power. In multilingual societies, if’s often the language used in formal contexts e.g. in schools and at universities or on TV. An example of this is the standard, “high” variant of Italian being used in these contexts over regional dialects. One such example is Ligurian, which has been classified as one of the world’s endangered languages.

Colonisation

Examples of this include the British imposing the English language across the former British empire. They often forcibly prohibited the use of local autochthonous languages resulting in far fewer native speakers over time. English subsequently became the prestige language in many of these societies, adding a whole host of languages to the list of endangered languages.

Repression

This refers to nation states wishing to promote a single national culture, as was clearly the case in Francoist Spain. Here, Castilian Spanish was declared Spain’s only language and the use of other Spanish languages was discouraged and partially banned. All to adhere to Spanish nationalism as one of the pillars of the regime at the time. This has led to the increasing vulnerability of some of these languages, such as Basque. Plus the eventual endangered state of others, such as Aragonese.

Urbanisation

This refers to the movement of people from rural areas to cities, where a prestigious language is most likely to be spoken at a mass level. This is another way a more dominant, powerful language circulates at a wider level causing the eventual decay of a rural language or variant.

Intermarriage

In cases where two parents are native speakers of different languages, and where one of the two is a lesser spoken or ethnic language, findings reveal that the less widely spoken language is more likely to be lost to younger generations. Further showing that the prestigious language is often favoured over a less prestigious one, even on a small, familial scale.

How many languages are endangered

We’ve now covered a broad range of reasons for which languages may go extinct. But how many languages are currently endangered? According to Ethnologue.com, there are currently 3,045 endangered languages in the world (constituting approximately 43% of the world’s languages today).

What are 5 endangered languages?

According to UNESCO, the following are examples of five languages (among many) that are definitely endangered langauges today:

  • Yiddish. Spoken mostly in Israel, Russia, and the Jewish diaspora in the USA and other European countries.
  • Quechua. There are several varieties of this language spoken by South American indigenous people of the central Andes, all of which are endangered languages.
  • Tuvaluan. Spoken on the Polynesian island of Tuvalu.
  • Cherokee. One of the many Native American endangered languages, spoken by the Cherokee people native to present day south-eastern United States.
  • Romani. Spoken by the Roma across various European countries.

There are several projects underway to revitalise languages on their way to extinction, such as the above. For example, in Peru, initiatives are in place to promote the use of Quechua in school and in the government. This includes the establishment of a municipal office where Quechua speakers can be attended to in their native languages. Similarly, Yiddishism arose as a movement to promote the culture and language and continues to be latent today. Many young artists, poets and lyricists continue to inject the language in their various creations and media.

What languages in the UK are endangered?

Whilst English is undoubtedly the Lingua Franca of the UK (as well as worldwide), there are other, less widely spoken languages present still on the British isles. There has been a noticeable decrease in speakers of Cornish, Welsh and Gaelic, putting these already vulnerable languages at risk of becoming some of the world’s most endangered languages. Whilst it’s worrying that these languages are in decline, there are many attempts to propel the use of these languages, especially Welsh, both through education and diverse media.

If we consider how many invaluable qualities are tied to a language, working to revitalise critically endangered languages becomes a no brainer. Languages carry and convey cultures; they codify concepts that can be untranslatable, such as natural remedies and traditions.

As a Welsh voice-over and translation agency, we are pleased to have participated in a broad range of Welsh voice-over, Welsh translation, and Welsh subtitling projects over the years. It’s encouraging to continue to witness a steady demand for Welsh content, and as avid language lovers, we’re always keen to safeguard heritage and culture in the way we know best: through the power of words.

As well as providing translation services for several decades now, we also provide voice over and subtitling services. Whether you need voice overs or subtitles, we’d love to hear from you.

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