By Grace Austin
According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, designed to raise awareness and help “safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity,” 2,500 languages are approaching extinction status globally. Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Melanesia have the greatest amount of endangered languages. In Australia specifically, only 145 of more than 250 known indigenous languages are still spoken. More than 100 are threatened by extinction.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) efforts to save linguistic diversity root back to more than a decade ago. In 2001, the global organization adopted a framework to tackle the growing problem. It cited the important role language takes in the “expression and transmission of living heritage” and in overall cultural diversity. In essence, unique cultural knowledge developed by a culture can be lost when its last speakers die.
Linguistic diversity also has a profound effect on biodiversity. Studies on Amazonian tribes with severely endangered languages have shown that the loss of language speakers in turn has led to negative impacts on the diversity of crops. Studies on the Maori of New Zealand show that their ancestral sayings reveal important information regarding plant growth, soils, and ecological communities.
Language endangerment can be rooted in many different factors. Lack of documentation, governmental or official policies towards language, loss of intergenerational transmission (from parents to children, for example), and the overall number of speakers are factors identified by UNESCO for language vitality, or how strong and relevant the language is.
To save linguistic diversity, encouraging education of the mother tongue, changing governmental policies, and promoting endangered languages digitally have been major goals.
Without the help of UNESCO, many more languages will become extinct. An estimated 190 have already been lost. Endangered languages represent unique cultures that can not only give us a glimpse into the past but provide a wealth of knowledge that could be beneficial in the future.
For more information on preserving endangered languages, please visit unesco.org.