What You Need to Know About Learning Endangered Languages
Everyone knows about the typical reasons for learning a language: travel, family, business, personal interest. But what about language adoption? If you think of adopting a child, or a dog, or just about anything, the idea is to give a home to someone or something that is not your own, but that is in need. Adopting a language is the same thing. The idea with language adoption is to choose an endangered language, one that is danger of going extinct, and learning it to help revitalize and carry on the traditions of that language and its people.
What is an Endangered Language?
It is estimated that more than 50% of the 7,000 languages spoken on earth today are endangered. But what does that really mean?
The first answer is the simplest: any language that is likely to become extinct in the near future. That 50% number (and possibly as high as 90%) comes from a UNESCO study that estimates the possible extinction of a huge swath of languages by the year 2100. But a better explanation is to describe languages along a continuum of language health.
The Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale or EGIDS evaluates language health on a scale of 1-10, with one being a thriving language, and 10 being an extinct language. Anything that falls below a 5 on this scale is considered to be on the endangered side of the scale. Although the EGIDS uses more than 12 different indicators to evaluate language health, the two most important are users and usage.
Users refers to what we often think about when it comes to endangered languages: how many people speak that language. The fewer people that speak a language, especially natively, and the fewer number of children learning a language from their parents is a key factor of endangerment.
Usage refers to the variety of situations in which the language is used by its speakers. Even if a language has a relatively large number of speakers, it can still be considered endangered if it is only used under a very narrow set of circumstances.
What Causes Language Endangerment?
The circumstances surrounding language endangerment can be incredibly varied, but some of the most common include:
Languages are often lost when one cultural group integrates into another. Immigrants, migrants, and even those experiencing socio-cultural shifts in their own homes (i.e. gentrification) will often experience the pull of integration. Voluntary integration is when a person or group chooses to give up their language because they enjoy or identify strongly with the culture with which they’re integrating. An example of this might be an American citizen of reasonably high socio-economic status traveling to Japan and choosing to only speak Japanese at home, purposely engage in relationships solely with Japanese speakers, consume Japanese-language media exclusively, and so on.
Pressured integration happens when a person or group feels the need to reject their own native language in favor of a dominant one for economic gain, cultural integration, or social acceptance. This can often be seen in immigrant communities where parents refuse to allow the children to speak anything but the dominant language for fear of the impact of the native language on later economic success.
Forced integration, is of course also an unfortunate reality. In forced integration, individuals or groups are required to abandon their native language, or face serious consequence and/or violence. Forced integration has been a controversial practice at schools for centuries. In the United States, for example, many schools enforce English-only policies, or forbid students from speaking their own mother-tongues even in their free-time.
A common occurrence with immigrant communities is a feeling of detachment from their native or historical culture. For a variety of reasons, people and groups begin to feel a stronger connection to whatever culture they immigrated or were born into and less attached to that of their forebears.
U.S. immigrants to Germany, for example, might feel a strong attachment to the United Sates and want their children to speak English at home. By the time the 2nd or 3rd generation descendants come around though, they’ll likely consider themselves more German than American. Detachment could also be seen as a part or consequence of integration.
An unfortunate reality is that languages will sometimes become endangered or die out completely as a result of war, disease, genocide, etc. Unlike integration or detachment, endangerment or extinction as the result of violence is abrupt, and can happen so fast that preservation or revitalization is all but impossible.
What about Latin or Classical Chinese?
There is one important distinction to make about the disappearance of languages. Languages like Latin or Classical Chinese did not undergo language endangerment. Instead, these languages were allowed to run their course and evolve naturally into modern languages like French and Spanish, or Mandarin and Cantonese respectively.
How Fast are Languages Becoming Endangered?
Journalists often report that a language dies every two weeks. This information is taken primarily from two publications: Michael Krauss’ 1992 “The World’s Languages in Crisis” and David Crystal’s 2000 “Language Death”. However, in a 2018 post Glossika's founder and CEO Michael Campbell showed that there are some problems with this analysis.
The claim by these publications that up to 90% of all languages will be gone by the year 2100 seem to be guesses or based on a very narrow sample size (most likely the US or Australia which face the worst rates of language endangerment). Also adding to the confusion is the fact that researchers continually add extinct languages to this list, with little regard to the verification of the identity or existence of those languages.
While there are languages that are indeed endangered and going extinct, the rates are much lower than reported. Based on Michael Campbell’s research, languages are going extinct at a rate of one every 3.9 years, with only 0.3% expected to die out by 2100.
What Happens after a Language Becomes Endangered?
Once a language becomes endangered, there are a few outcomes that follow. When a language drops to a small number of native speakers, or is used only within a narrow set of situations, it should be the goal of any language lover or linguist to help that language undergo language revitalization.
Language revitalization is the process of increasing the health of an endangered language. Just like animals can be revitalized and taken off the endangered species list, so too can languages be revitalized to a healthy level. One of the most successful examples of language revitalization is modern Hebrew.
By the 19th century, Hebrew was a dormant language, reserved for liturgical readings and religious ceremonies. It had not had a native speaker for nearly 2,000 years. And yet by 2017 Hebrew had over 5 million native speakers and is the official language of an entire country. This happened through the work of linguists like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who sought to use language to create a unified Jewish identity.
Revitalization efforts can also be seen in programs aimed at teaching the younger generation endangered languages. For example, Cree language classes offered by Heritage Canada in an attempt to connect young learners with their linguistic heritage.
After a language goes through endangerment, the next step is typically dormancy. A language becomes dormant when no native speakers are left, but people that identify culturally with that language and speak it as a second language are still around. In the Hebrew example above, prior to revitalization, Hebrew was a dormant language. Before the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Hebrew had no native speakers but was still used in liturgical context, spoken as a lingua-franca pidgin in the Holy Land region, and maintained a strong cultural connection for the Jewish population that used it.
This is in contrast to an extinct language like Latin. Latin is no longer spoken as a mother-tongue and no one (or at least no significant groups) identify themselves as cultural inheritors and speakers of that language. Should revitalization efforts fail, or not be undertaken in the first place, what follows is extinction. Extinction occurs when no native speakers of a language, nor those that speak the language non-natively but still identify with it culturally, remain.
Why Should You Learn an Endangered Language?
Why is losing a language bad?
Language is the conduit of human heritage. When the world loses a language, it also loses a unique perspective and insight. Losing a language is also losing all of the spiritual stories, mythological histories, medical knowledge, geographical familiarity, navigational secrets, and zoological insights of a people. Imagine if the only access we had to Shakespeare was through Indonesian, a language without the ‘to be’ copula.
Imagine describing the taste of a perfectly cooked steak without the Japanese word ‘umami’. Imagine a world without the German word ‘Schadenfreude’: feeling joy at watching others fail. Imagine all of the words, expressions, and descriptions we don’t know because their associated languages have died out. The loss of languages can also hinder scientific progress. Studying the linguistic possibilities present in different languages allows researchers to understand more about human cognition and the ways our brains are able to learn such a complex system at such a young age. The fewer languages available to study, the less we can learn about the capabilities of the human mind.
Isn’t having an international language a good thing?
Yes, a language that allows all people from around the world to communicate is a good thing. Personal connections, commerce, political dialogue, all of these are great reasons to be in favor of an international language. But that doesn’t mean you have to or should feel pressured to give up your own language and customs. Speaking more than one language has amazing cognitive advantages, and allows you to stay connected to your own cultural heritage. There is absolutely no reason why learning a majority language need also mean losing your own linguistic tradition.
Why should you learn an endangered language?
Learning a language allows you to be part of the preservation and/or revitalization of a language and culture. Your efforts could mean the difference between a language fading into obscurity or living on to the next generation. Learning an endangered language presents a unique challenge. Unlike learning Spanish or French, you’ll have to dig deep to find language-learning resources and native speakers to practice with. You’ll have the opportunity to be one of a (possibly) very small number of people to learn and speak one of these languages. Learning an endangered language give you a unique cultural connection that few others have and is well worth the struggle.
How Can You Learn an Endangered Language?
Learning an endangered language can be much more difficult than learning a large language like French or German. Thankfully, it has never been easier to engage with any language. Here are some tips for learning an endangered language:
Finding resources is the most difficult aspect of learning a small or endangered language. Thankfully, the internet gives access to many different resources that might not otherwise be available. Try looking for books written in your target language, see if you can find YouTube videos that feature your target language or even movies or newscasts. Even a little bit of content goes a long way. The famous polyglot Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti was said to have studied many of his nearly 39 languages by simply reading The Lord’s Prayer in different languages.
Find a native speaker
Once again, it’s the internet to the rescue! Even if you never have the chance to visit the native land of your target language, you’re sure to have a great chance of finding native speakers through the internet. Video-conferencing apps like Skype, language-teacher sites like iTalki, and even connections via Facebook groups are all great places to turn when searching for a native speaker of endangered languages.
Make your own study materials
Once you’ve found some resources, it’s time to build your own language-learning materials. Whereas learners of languages like Chinese or Portuguese can find a host of ready made flash-cards, games, and dictionaries, you’ll have to work independently and with your language teacher to make your own.
Find other language learners
One of the greatest resources for learners of any language is a community. This is especially important for learning an endangered language. Find people that are dealing with the same struggles and work together to share resources and find solutions.
Find scholars of that language
Hand-in-hand with tip #4, try to find scholars that have had to learn your target language for their own research. A quick search on Google Scholar will reveal a myriad of resources on the language and culture that you are trying to study.
Find related languages
Even if the language you’re hoping to study has a severe lack of resources, there’s a good chance that you can find help in closely related languages. For example, if you come across a word in Manx that you just can’t understand, a look through an Irish-language dictionary may give some answers.
Reach out to organizations
There are many organizations today either dedicated to the study and preservation of endangered languages, or that work closely with the communities that still speak them. Organizations like Our Mother Tongues, Wikitongues and The Endangered Languages Project host language maps and text, video, and audio samples of several endangered languages.
Organizations like Peace Corps put themselves into at-risk communities and communicate with them regularly. Build a relationship with these organizations and get connected to the languages you want to learn and the people you want to communicate with.
What is Glossika Doing?
Glossika is an AI-based language learning company with an incredible dedication to endangered languages. Language preservation is one of Glossika’s core values, and it’s not just talk. Nine endangered or resource-poor languages are currently offered for free on the Glossika platform: Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka (Sixian), Hakka (Hailu), Wenzhounese (Wu), Kurdish (Sorani), Catalan, Manx, Welsh, Gaelic
In 2018, CEO and Founder Michael Campbell also committed to include all Formosan languages on the platform in the future. Adding languages takes time, resources, and expense, but Glossika is committed to the preservation of language.
What language would you like to see added in the future? If you are interested in collaborating with Glossika, get in contact with Glossika at firstname.lastname@example.org.