Why do languages become endangered?

Languages become endangered when speakers decline, either through death or through a move to another, often more dominant, language. Factors that threaten languages fall into two main categories; external or internal forces. External forces can include military, economic, religious and cultural suppression while internal forces could include factors like a community’s negative attitude towards its own language.

Badeshi: The Extinct Language

Take the language of Badeshi, for example. The language is actually already classified as extinct, although three elderly speakers have been found to still speak it. One of these speakers, Rahim Gul, discussed with the BBC the reasons he thinks Badeshi has been pushed to the very brink of extinction.

“A generation ago, Badeshi was spoken in the entire village but then we brought women from other villages [for marriage] who spoke Torwali language. Their children spoke in their mother tongue, so our language started dying out.

Linguist Sagar Zaman has worked with the three remaining Badeshi speakers and has surmised that a large contributing factor of the ‘extinct’ status of the language is due to speakers of the two dominant languages in the area, Torwali and Pashto, looking down upon Badeshi, creating a stigma around speaking the language.

Can anything be done to protect endangered languages?

The most vital thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to create the best possible conditions for its speakers to converse in the language and then to pass it on to the next generation. For this to be possible, there needs to be national policies that recognize and protect minority languages, education systems that allow for mother tongue teaching, and collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and create written records of the language.

It is crucial that there is a positive attitude in the community toward its own language, so a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages must be created, to remove any stigma that may be attached to a certain language. If there is a language with so few speakers that it cannot hope to be maintained, linguists are able to record as much as the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace.

Can languages recover?

All is not lost for endangered languages and even languages declared officially extinct can be revived! Take Native American language Wompanoag, or Wôpanâak, from the US East Coast in Massachusetts which was actually able to be resurrected after over 100 years of extinction!  Today, Wompanoag can boast over 400 speakers, almost all of them fluent enough to classify it as a second language. Moreover, a tiny portion of this population are children who can claim to be the first generation of native speakers in over a century. The revival of the Wompanoag language can be considered the first case of an extinct language being successfully revitalized in the United States.

Wompanoag has a small presence in Massachusetts schools but mainly benefits from private classes and short immersion camps via organizations such as The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.

For more information about endangered languages, check out the UNESCO website.

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