You’ve probably heard that we’re currently in the middle of the sixth wave of grand extinctions in the history of the planet. Animal and plant species are disappearing at an alarming rate, all due to human interference with the environment. But, at the same time, there is another mass extinction taking place, which is not nearly as well covered by the media. The victims in this, second, extinction are human languages, which are disappearing nearly as quickly as species of flora and fauna.
The questions this blog post tries to answer are why it’s difficult to determine the exact scope of language extinction and what is driving these changes. To read more about the future of this mass disappearance, take a look at Part Two of this post.
To find out what is meant by a language dying out, you should also check out What is Language Death?
The problem with numbers
Nobody really knows how many languages there are on the planet. This is because of a number of reasons. Number one, it’s difficult to ascertain what makes a language. As we’ve touched on before, the border between a language and a dialect is a porous one at best. For example, “Chinese” is sometimes considered to be one language, although it actually consists of a vast variety of different dialects. The differences between standard Cantonese and Mandarin are so large that they’re more aptly compared to languages within a family. So, instead of talking about the Chinese language, we should be talking about the Chinese language family.
Secondly, a huge number of languages are only spoken by a very small number of people. In the most inaccessible parts of the world, a language can be limited to a single village. Up until a few centuries ago, this was also the case in, for example, the Alps, where a single village could speak a dialect so unique that it was unintelligible to anyone outside of that small circle. While that might not be the case in Austria or Switzerland anymore, there are still plenty of inaccessible forests (think the Amazon and Indonesia), which might still house a couple of dozen languages hitherto unknown to science.
The best guess
So, taking into account the possible number of languages yet to be discovered and the disagreement over what constitutes a language, there is a pretty big variation in the estimates given. One of the most respected sources, the Ethnologue, which does its best to catalogue all of the world’s languages, gives the number 7097. Some more conservative sources put the estimate between five and six thousand.
While the exact number is a matter of contention, nobody is really disagreeing with the fact that an ever-increasing amount of them is dying out at an alarming rate.
Seven thousand going on twenty
Even if there are over seven thousand languages, they’re not all created equal. Far from it.
In fact, around 95% of the world’s population speaks one of only 20 languages. That naturally means that there’s a huge disparity in how likely a language is to survive.
As you can imagine, if a language is spoken in a single village, its survival is very much dependent on that community. Around a quarter of the world’s languages have less than a thousand speakers, making them very vulnerable to changes in their speakers’ lifestyles. Another 50% are spoken by fewer than ten thousand people.
So, when people fret about language death, no one means languages like Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, or any other in the top twenty list. It’s the ones you’ve never heard about that are disappearing. Much like how Lonesome George was the last remnant of a species now lost to the world, several hundred languages hang on only because their last speakers haven’t died yet. But once they disappear, they take their languages with them.
So, why is this happening now?
The reasons have a lot to do with the world getting smaller and the top 20 languages cementing their influence at the expense of regional differences. International trade and globalisation are bringing people together to an unprecedented degree and offering great chances of improving one’s living standards. The only condition to taking part of this worldwide “get rich quick” scheme is that you need to move out of your village, go to a big city, and learn a global language.
Once that happens and a language is no longer learned natively by any children in the home village, it is on the quick track to extinction. There is very little that can be done to save a language once it loses a generation of native speakers.
Conclusion – Extinction due to globalisation threatens a long list of small languages
There are still around 7000 languages spoken on the planet but they’re dying out fast. Small languages with only a few thousand speakers make up the vast majority of the ones spoken on Earth. However, it is the top 20 that have the most influence and which are spoken by about 95% of people. It is the small languages that are very likely to die over the next couple of decades if the process can’t be stopped.