Death of Languages: Like All Living Things, Languages Experience a Life Cycle of their Own

When Alban Michael passed away earlier this year at the ripe young age of 89, the occasion really marked two deaths. You see, Mr. Michael was the last surviving speaker of the Nuchatlaht language once spoken by his Native American ancestors of the Pacific Northwest. His death also marked the quiet end of yet another language that has died out over the millennia of human existence.
Like plants and animals, human languages have proven to have their own life cycles: they’re born, they grow, they adapt, they expand and, invariably, they die. Sometimes their death is a slow reincarnation, like the transition from “Olde” English into our modern vernacular, or how Latin was gradually replaced by Italian. Other times their unfortunate demise is driven by oppression—conquering armies throughout history have often either destroyed indigenous cultures or prohibited the use of native tongues. For the thousands of languages that have disappeared over the ages, there was always one last soul—like Mr. Alban Michael—who carried the final words of their people to the grave.
So just how many languages have been lost to time? There’s no definitive answer. Image of world map of languagesEstimates range widely from 600 to 60,000. It’s especially hard to guess how languages came and went among primitive groups of people thousands of years ago. The Eblaite and Sumerian tongues are among the oldest languages whose deaths are traced back to the 2nd millennium B.C.  But more recent studies on the death of languages are not much more conclusive. Some have estimated that 4,000 languages have become extinct just within the past few hundred years. If you read our last blog, you learned that about 250 languages died out in India alone over the past 50 years, with many more on the “endangered” list. In fact, some experts predict that 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the world today will be extinct by the year 2100, if not sooner.
This expedited death toll can be attributed to a couple of key factors:

  1. Globalization is urging populations to grow closer together and remove communication barriers that hamper economic, social, scientific and cultural interactions.
  2. Communication technology is bringing cultures and people together at an unprecedented rate, which can force smaller, undeveloped communities to forsake their native tongue for more mainstream languages in order to compete, or just to survive.
  3. Homogenization is slowly winnowing the number of languages that young people have traditionally learned either in schools or from their parents. In recent centuries, many countries have urged—or forced—assimilation of cultures within their borders, so instead of nurturing language and cultural differences, young people grow up learning only the more dominant language of their society, and the native tongues of their ancestors slowly die off as a result.

Of the 7,000 languages in use today, the majority of them are spoken by relatively small clusters of people. According to the website Ethnologue, which catalogs all of the known living languages on Earth, six percent of the world’s languages are spoken by 94 percent of the world’s population; the remaining 94 percent of languages are spoken by only 6 percent of the population. Consider the small island of New Guinea: despite its minuscule percentage of the world’s population (0.1%), it is home to more than 1,100 languages, or about one-sixth of the world’s total. About 130 languages around the world are spoken by fewer than 10 people, which illustrates the extreme vulnerability of that speech as the speakers age and die out.
When it comes to existing languages susceptible to extinction, the Top 10 countries with the most endangered languages are: United States (227 endangered languages); India (199); Brazil (190); Indonesia (149); Russian Federation (148); China (148); Mexico (143); Australia (108); Papua New Guinea (98); and Canada (93).
As a leading language service provider for more than 30 years, we hate to see any language die. In addition to being unique and intricate links to humankind’s collective past, languages can also provide valuable information across cultures. For example, aborigines in Australia used their traditional language to educate modern medical staff about otherwise unknown uses of a local plant that cured skin rashes. It shows that languages represent more than just words; they also carry the memory of a people, complete with the irreplaceable knowledge, insights and experiences gained over the centuries.
We see language diversity as a healthy and essential part of a thriving planet. Promoting multilingual families, schools, businesses and communities is a more enlightened and constructive approach to a globalized world than one where we all speak the same language. We’ll continue to do our part to make sure we all can communicate with each other, even if it’s in an obscure, possibly endangered, language.  We think Alban Michael would have shared our view.
For more than 30 years, ASIST Translation Services, Inc. has worked with business, government, educational and non-profit clients around the world. We improve foreign language communications through a full menu of translation and interpreting services, including content localization, studio voice recording & audio-visual production, transcreation, proofreading, website content, page layout & design, cultural training, and other specialized language support. To learn more about how we can assist you, visit our LinkedInTwitter or Facebook pages or our Website!