While the world’s population is steadily increasing, the number of spoken languages is actually decreasing.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) looked at factors like intergenerational language transmission, total number of speakers and percentage of speakers within a population, and found that about 2,700 of the world’s 6,700 languages, each carrying generations of worldviews and cultural traditions, are at risk of extinction. The list includes a wide range of linguistic situations, everything from languages with millions of speakers failing to pass down their native dialects to tiny populations trying to grow their almost-forgotten tongue.
In an effort to capture the sounds of these rare languages before they disappear, the Endangered Languages project asked 25 native speakers of dying tongues to record their translation of an ever-relevant quote often attributed to Italian film director Federico Fellini: “A different language is a different vision of life.”
The project sought out diminishing languages in locations ranging from developed cities to rural villages around the world. They include languages like Lombard which, despite having 3,500,000 speakers throughout Italy and Switzerland, is decreasing in popularity due to disinterest among young urbanites. They also studied much smaller languages like Nawat, spoken by only 200 people in El Salvador, that are experiencing growing numbers of second language learners. Below, we highlight a few languages from each end of the spectrum: Wiradjuri, a language with only 30 speakers that’s undergoing a revival, Choctaw, a Native American language with 9,500 speakers and strong educational efforts, and Belarusian, a slowly dying dialect spoken by millions.
Wiradjuri – “Muriguwal dyiba dhuruwirradhi muriguwal ngaanyi murunhi.”
With just 30 speakers remaining, Wiradjuri is an indigenous Australian language that falls into UNESCO’s “critically endangered” category. The Wiradjuri people have occupied a region of New South Wales for over 40,000 years, but when European settlers entered the area in the early 19th century, their population and language began to dwindle. But despite having so few speakers, its future looks rather promising. Programs to teach indigenous languages in Australian public schools have been successfully implemented, and a Wiradjuri dictionary was recently published. With some luck, its grim trajectory could be reversed.
Choctaw- “Anompa inla ish anompolahinla hokmvt, okchanya inla ish pinsahinla.”
While Wiradjuri began to fade in the early 18th century, a language halfway across the world was beginning to thrive. Spoken by a Native American group that unified in the southern United States in the 17th century, the Choctaw people mostly occupied areas in what is now Mississippi. However, many Choctaw were driven westward when the British defeated the tribe’s French allies in the French and Indian war, causing them to lose much of their territory. Now, there are just 9,500 native Choctaw speakers spanning Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana. But don’t let the numbers fool you. There are numerous educational efforts, like the Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna School of Choctaw Language, aimed at teaching prospective learners and keep the indigenous language alive.
Belarusian- “Іншая мова з’яўляецца іншым бачаннем жыцця.”
Despite having about 4,000,000 speakers, one of Belarus’ official languages is at risk of dying off. Belarusian, which dates back to the 13th century, was spoken by the elite class in the 18th century, but declined in the 19th century when Russian and Polish were introduced to the education system. Known as a “peasant language” in the years that followed, the dialect never fully recovered. An effort was made to popularize the language when Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, but with so many Russian speakers already occupying the area, the resurgence never happened. Now, the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus says that Russian is the primary language in both Belarus households and schools, with many unable to speak or read Belarusian at all. Given the failed attempts to grow in the past, Belarusian may disappear before our eyes.
Although organizations like UNESCO work toward protecting endangered languages by promoting multilingualism and supporting resurgence efforts, some will inevitably fade out. With each language hanging on to a unique set of values, perspectives and historical contexts, it’s important to preserve distinctive dialects while we still can. A full list of the 25 translated languages can be heard here.