What is an Endangered Language?
An endangered language is a language headed for extinction. It is a language without monolingual speakers, people who speak only that language. It is a language spoken by a minority of people in the nation and for that reason is held in low esteem, causing its speakers to avoid using it or passing it on to their children. 20 years ago, all of the children in the Yupik community in Alaska spoke Yupik; now the youngest speakers are in their 20's. Mohawk and Onondaga are still spoken in upstate New York but only by older adults. Many languages today have only one remaining speaker, an older person who will take that language with him or her to the grave.
What Causes Language Extinction?
Because it is not useful in the society, perhaps even a social liability, an endangered language is not passed on by parents to their children. Speaking the majority language better equips children for success in the majority culture than speaking a less prestigious language. Some governments actively discourage minority language use. For decades, it was illegal to speak Macedonian or sing Macedonian songs in Greece. That situation is reflected in the history of Native American languages in the United States.
How Many Languages are Threatened Today?
No one knows exactly how many languages exist in the world today but best estimates place the figure around 6800. Roughly 1,000 are spoken in the Americas (15%), 2,400 in Africa (35%), 200 in Europe (3%), 2,000 in Asia (28%) and, perhaps, 1,200 in the Pacific (19%). Keep in mind that only about a quarter of the languages and few dialects have writing systems and not all languages have even been "discovered" by Western linguistics. Most linguists, however, agree that half of the world's languages are endangered; many fear that 90% will disappear by the end of this century. The important points to keep in mind are these: (1) large numbers of languages, probably the majority, are in danger of extinction and (2) many more have not yet been described in grammars and dictionaries.
What Difference Does it Make?
Language is the most efficient means of transmitting a culture, and it is the owners of that culture that lose the most when a language dies. Every culture has adapted to unique circumstances, and the language expresses those circumstances. While a community may not lose its sense of identity when it loses its language, identity is closely associated with language. When Yugoslavia broke up, it was very important that the Serbo-Croatian language spoken in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercevovina, Serbia, and Montenegro be called 'Croatian' but the Croatians, 'Bosnian' by the Bosnians, and so on. All peoples identify their culture as closely with their languages as with their religion. What we talk about, think, and believe is closely bound up with the words we have, so the history of a culture can be mapped in its language. The Russian word "mir" for example has three discrete meanings today: 'commune, world, peace'. There was a point in Russian history when most of the population lived in communes all their lives so that a commune was a Russian's world so long as they were at peace. (They tended to flee into the forests when invaded.) Millions of cultural stories like this are at risk.
People from other cultures are also impoverished when any language dies. The history tied up in a language will go unrecorded; the poetry and rhythm of a singular tongue will be silenced forever. The scientific search for Universal Grammar, the common starting point for all grammars that human children seem to be born with, depends on our knowing what all human languages have in common. The wholesale loss of languages that we face today will greatly restrict how much we can learn about human cognition, language, and language acquisition at a time when the achievements in these arenas have been greater than ever before.
How Does English and the Internet Affect Endangered Languages?
The spread of English as the commercial lingua Franca has taken its toll, particularly on the Internet, where even the computer code is based on English. However, the Internet is becoming a tool for preserving endangered languages, too. Take a look at the Celtic dictionary sections and the Celtic grammar sections of yourDictionary.com. Speakers of these languages have been particularly active in putting up web pages in the various Celtic languages, but also in mounting extremely effective, large-scale dictionary and language-learning projects on line. There is no reason why minority languages cannot coexist with a lingua Franca like English; indeed, the Internet offers more hope for their survival than they have ever known before, especially if translation tools become more effective.
What Can I Do to Help?
That brings us to Endangered Language Fund, The Foundation of Endangered Languages, and the present site, yourDictionary.com. Both the non-profit and commercial organizations are deeply committed to the use of the Internet to save endangered languages by providing funds for recording them and an outlet for publication that is available to everyone around the world free of charge. We all hope that having grammars and dictionaries of these languages continually available will help them to survive. For our efforts to succeed, however, we need the moral and financial support of the world community. There are two things you can do. First, you can join ELF by filling out the contribution form. All of your contribution will go directly to ELF and be applied to the discovery and description of endangered languages. (YourDictionary.com will receive no part of your contribution.) Second, return to yourDictionary.com often to check and see the results of your contribution and ELF's hard work, for yourDictionary.com will feature the dictionaries and grammars produced by the Fund. Let's hope that the combined efforts of non-profit organizations, private business, and private citizens can significantly reduce if not end the loss of the human linguistic heritage.