Endangered Languages: What They Are and How to Save Them

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There are well over 5000 living, spoken languages in use around the world. But every year, more enter the endangered languages list – or go extinct altogether.

It’s been estimated by some linguists that the overall number of languages in the world may be halved – or we may lose as many as 80% of the total – in the next hundred years.

Languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi, Portuguese and a few others may force out the rest as they become increasingly widespread.

So what languages are currently endangered? And what can we do to save them?

What is an endangered language?

An endangered language is on the path toward going extinct in terms of use. The process is usually a gradual one – languages rarely become endangered overnight.

Some endangered languages are no longer being taught to younger generations because English and other more dominant tongues are taking their place in education systems. Other languages are slowly going extinct because of other reasons.

A few have never recovered from European colonisation. Others have been diminished by the language policies of foreign invaders or different governments or by genocides that decimated their number of speakers in the recent or comparatively distant past.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) is currently tracing 576 languages they classify as endangered.

How do languages become extinct?

UNESCO has a system of five levels that tracks a language as it becomes progressively more endangered. These colour-coded levels can be found on their website:

  1. White (vulnerable) – still regularly spoken and taught to children, but perhaps predominantly used at home.
  2. Yellow (definitely endangered) – even in the home, children are now rarely taught or use the language.
  3. Orange (severely endangered) – only spoken by older generations or grandparents, possibly understood but not spoken or used by parents and children.
  4. Red (critically endangered) – only the older generations understand the language and they use it infrequently or only in part.
  5. Black (extinct) – no speakers remaining at all.

What are 5 endangered languages?

Over five hundred languages are currently on the very edge of extinction. At least one hundred are only spoken by small groups – or even only by solitary speakers. Some endangered languages include:

1) Hawaiian – Critically endangered

From a state of 90% literacy on the archipelago, the Hawaiian language – Ōlelo Hawaiʻi – was rapidly forced out of public and private life after the US took over in 1896.

It would be nearly 100 years before the government reversed the language policy that saw Ōlelo Hawaiʻi banned from being taught in schools.

However, Hawaiian may soon become a success story of an endangered language being saved. Several preservation societies have been created, 18 000 people in Hawaii recently listed the language as the one they speak at home, and 2000 students are enrolled in language schools.

You can also find Ōlelo Hawaiʻi on Duolingo. Over half a million people are currently studying Hawaiian using the popular app.

2) Potawatomi – Critically endangered

The Potawatomi are a Native American people from what is modern-day Ontario in the United States, though they usually refer to themselves as Neshnabé or Bodéwadmi.

Once estimated to number thousands of speakers, today a dozen people or fewer may have the Potawatomi language as their mother tongue. However, more people speak the language – including several “language masters” who offer language programs supported by one or more of the several different Potawatomi tribes.

These language programs are available to people far beyond the Great Lakes, Upper Mississippi, and Great Plains regions where most of the Potawatomi tribes live. This might be of interest to anyone seeking a challenging language – Potawatomi features many different sounds and often very lengthy words – to explore or learn.

3) Yiddish (European and Israeli) – Definitely endangered

Yiddish has several different dialects that are mainly linked to geographical locations. In the past century though, every Yiddish dialect has experienced a reduction in the number of speakers.

These numbers were estimated to be around 11 million in the 1930s. Today, total numbers are thought to be less than one million, mainly concentrated among strictly Orthodox Jews living in the US, Canada, Israel, and Europe.

The standardised form of Yiddish can be found on Duolingo and nearly half a million users of the app are learning the language.

4) Ume Saami – Critically endangered

In Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, many members of the older generations speak languages from the Saami family.

This entire language family is at risk of going extinct altogether, with Ume Saami being a prime example. Originally the basis of Sweden’s first written language and vital during the formation of the country, the language was marginalised for most of the past century.

Today, there seem to be only ten people living along the Ume River who speak and use Ume Saami.

5) Cornish – Critically Endangered

Cornish is another language that may be experiencing something of a revival or “awakening” (according to the Endangered Languages Project).

One of the roughly ten indigenous languages of the British Isles, Cornish is a Celtic language from the South-West of England. As a Celtic tongue, it is closely related to Welsh and the Breton spoken in parts of France.

The Cornish language is one of a very select group of languages that seems to have gone entirely extinct – at least in terms of native speakers, the last passing away over two hundred years ago – but is now being revived, taught by groups and projects including:

  • BBC Cornwall’s Cornish language course
  • The website Say Something in Cornish
  • The University of Exeter, which offers a Cornish language course

Why should we save endangered languages?

Some people argue that a language going extinct is something we shouldn’t worry about. It’s a kind of social Darwinism – a survival of the most suitable means of communication.

Yet each language lost can mean a huge loss to the world as well as the individuals who feel the loss of their language as something deeply personal.

Some languages have unique words that express parts of the human condition or experience of life. Many, if not all, have incredible oral histories and stories that may be lost when they are.

Remember – writing is actually a relatively recent innovation in historical terms. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s current languages don’t have a writing system at all.

What knowledge of the world, history, and invention might already have been lost because a language was? Preserving a language is a worthy endeavour.

How do we save endangered languages?

If you’re concerned about the loss of these unique and potentially irreplaceable repositories of history, knowledge, and culture, you’re not alone.

There are many ways people around the world are attempting to preserve and grow the art of speaking endangered languages, including:

 1) Master-apprentice programs

Exemplified by schemes like those in place to preserve the Potawatomi language, master-apprentice programs are used to pair one master of the language with one student.

Another good example is the master-apprentice program of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council of British Columbia. This 900-hour course teaches the indigenous languages of British Columbia to students across a three-year period.

Following that, the apprentices become the masters! They can then teach others and spread the language – theoretically exponentially, up to a point.

2) Technology

Apps like Duolingo are starting to play a prominent role in spreading the learning of languages considered at risk or endangered. Yet they’re not alone in offering potential technological solutions to the problem.

For example, using social media to find words and phrases from endangered languages is a project currently being undertaken by Professor Kevin Scannell at the University of St Louis. You can check out the project at indigenoustweets.com.

The efforts of a band of Eastern Cherokee in the US also resulted in – among other excellent steps towards growing use of the language – Windows 8 being made available in Cherokee.

Keeping languages in everyday use is all the easier when the technology people use every day can be accessed in them.

3) Recording and analysis

A truly worrying number of languages are at risk of going extinct too quickly to reverse.

The result is that many people are putting effort into recording whatever they can in the hope of pulling the same trick as Cornish (or Modern Hebrew, which was revived after only being a written language for several hundred years – or the Miami languages, extinct by the 1960s but now taught at Miami University).

Linguists and researchers are visiting what few speakers of a given language remain, recording video and audio files of them speaking, and taking written records and transcriptions ready for translation.

This vital data can then be analysed and dictionaries and grammars created based on it, ensuring a language need never entirely be lost.

New languages are being created

Though the story of many hundreds of languages is one of them being endangered or at risk of going wholly extinct – as well as the heroic efforts being taken to preserve them – new languages are being created too.

Take the example of the many sign languages used around the world. The BANZSL family (British, Australian, and New Zealand Sign Language) is based on a sign language used in Britain in the 1800s. Modern British Sign Language has been codified since the 1900s – around 77 000 people have it as their first language.

There are also examples of pidgins and blends of other tongues becoming official languages in their own right. A good example of this is Tok Pisin, Papua New Guinea’s national language.

Yet these few newly born languages are no match for the hundreds at risk and the roughly twenty-five that are lost every year. It will require more effort on the part of many more people if endangered languages are going to be saved and their knowledge preserved for future generations.


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