A new study found that of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages, around half are currently endangered.

Nearly a fifth of the world’s languages could disappear by the end of the century, a new study warns.

Research by Australian National University (ANU) published in online journal Nature Ecology and Evolution found that around half the world’s 7,000 recognised languages are currently endangered – with 1,500 particularly at risk.

“We found that without immediate intervention, language loss could triple in the next 40 years. And by the end of this century, 1,500 languages could cease to be spoken,” says study co-author Professor Lindell Bromham.

So, what’s behind the growing pressure languages are enduring?

According to the study, there are as many as 51 stressors on imperiled mother tongues.

Using an analysis of over 6,500 languages with variables spanning population, documentation, legal recognition, education policy, socioeconomic indicators and environmental features, the study shows that contact with other languages is not necessarily a driver of language loss.

“Contact with other local languages is not the problem – in fact languages in contact with many other indigenous languages tend to be less endangered,” said Professor Bromham.

Instead, unexpected factors like more years of schooling showed increased levels of language endangerment in some countries. Another surprising predictor of linguistic threat was a well-developed road network.

“[W]e found that the more roads there are, connecting country to city, and villages to towns, the higher the risk of languages being endangered. It’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages,” Bromham explained.

To stem the trend of linguistic erosion, the study advocates for a curriculum that supports bilingual education and encourages both native language mastery and the use of regionally dominant languages. Investment in language documentation is also crucial.

Indigenous language erasure

Of the over 7,000 languages spoken by the world’s 7.9 billion people, half of them speak just 24 languages, and 95 percent speak 400.

That leaves only five percent of the global population speaking some 6,600 languages, with hundreds spoken by fewer than ten people.

The primary driver for linguistic extinction is a process known as language shift, when speakers switch from indigenous tongues to the dominant national language.

The heaviest areas of language loss have been in Australia, Canada and the US, where over 70 percent of languages are highly endangered or no longer spoken, jettisoned in favour of English.

The ANU study also found important lessons for preserving many of the endangered languages spoken by Australia’s indigenous peoples, who have especially suffered from catastrophic rates of language loss.

“Australia has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of language loss worldwide,” said one of the study’s co-authors Professor Felicity Meakins.

“Prior to colonisation, more than 250 First nations languages were spoken, and multilingualism was the norm. Now, only 40 languages are still spoken and just 12 are being learnt by children.”

Meakins called for more funding and support for indigenous languages. “Australia only spends $20.89 annually per capital of the Indigenous population on languages, which is abysmal compared with Canada’s $69.30 and New Zealand’s $296.44.”

As UNESCO’s Decade of Indigenous Languages kicks off next month, the study’s findings are the latest reminder that urgent action is needed to preserve at-risk languages.

“When a language is lost, or is ‘Sleeping’ as we say for languages that are no longer spoken, we lose so much of our human cultural diversity. Every language is brilliant in its own way,” Professor Bromham said.

“Many of the languages predicted to be lost this century still have fluent speakers, so there is still the chance to invest in supporting communities to revitalise indigenous languages and keep them strong for future generations.”  

The loss of languages carries the additional risk of losing a wealth of knowledge related to native plants and animals – the kind of information conservationists require to protect species at risk of extinction.

Some conservation biologists estimate that indigenous communities, many of whom are gathered in regions with the greatest natural biodiversity, are guardians of 99 percent of the world’s genetic diversity.

Languages then, much like species, deserve to be preserved for their own sake.

Source: TRT World