Endangered is a word we usually associate with animal species, but some languages, too, are dying breeds. There are over 6000 languages spoken in the world today, but many are at risk of becoming extinct and forgotten. It is estimated that if language decline continues as it has been, half of the world’s languages could be wiped off the map by the end of this century. While some languages that are considered endangered still have thousands of speakers trying to keep them alive, other languages have become confined to single villages and still others to single people.
The Catalogue of Endangered Languages, or ELCat, is a project that has been launched by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity to raise awareness of the drastic loss of language that is currently taking place across the globe. While many of these languages are likely past the point of salvation in terms of everyday use, the ELCat and other, similar organizations can still offer ways to preserve these languages so that we can continue to respect and learn from linguistic diversity. Check out the variety in this list of threatened and endangered languages—and remember that this list barely scratches the surface.
1. Irish Gaelic
Irish Gaelic currently has over 40,000 estimated native speakers. There are several communities in Ireland, called Gaeltachts, where Irish is still spoken as the primary language. Governmental efforts have been in place for many years requiring Irish students to learn the Irish language and encouraging it to be spoken. Despite the government’s attempts, though, this language is still classified as vulnerable in the ELCat.
Also spelled Krimchak and known as Judeo-Crimean Tatar, this language is spoken by people in Crimea, a peninsula of Ukraine. It appears that only individuals born during or before the 1930s have retained fluency in this language, leaving an estimated 200 native speakers alive when research was conducted in 2007.
Also known as Nsyilxcən, this is one of hundreds of Native American languages that are considered endangered. Spoken primarily in communities in British Columbia, Canada, it is estimated that only about 150 native speakers of this language remain. Thankfully, the ELCat has amassed a significant number of resources, including videos, to help preserve this language.
Ts’ixa, also commonly seen as Ts’exa, is an endangered language of Botswana that is related to Shua, the language spoken throughout most of central Botswana. Ts’ixa is believed to only be spoken in one village today, the village of Mababe. It is estimated that there are currently less than 200 native speakers of this language, most of them adults. Children in this village often feel more comfortable speaking in Setswana or English, the languages they are educated in.
Ainu is the language of the Ainu people, a native group in Japan. Because there are only about ten native speakers remaining—all of them elderly members of the community—the language is critically endangered. ELCat does make reference to many people being heritage learners of the language, but that knowledge is not enough to sustain the use of a language when all of the fluent speakers are gone.
6. Rapa Nui
Many languages are endangered because their populations of speakers are isolated on islands; Rapa Nui is one such language. Considered a threatened language, Rapa Nui is spoken on the famous Easter Island; as of 2000 there were 3390 native speakers. Spanish is gradually becoming the more dominant language among the island’s inhabitants.
Yagan is an indigenous language of Chile that purportedly has only one remaining native speaker. That is not to say that others are not familiar with the language, but they are not fluent or regular speakers of it. The ELCat features a video of a woman demonstrating the language in a greeting recorded for the First Congress on the Indigenous Languages of Chile.
Saami is not a single language, but a family of languages that includes at least ten different variations. These languages are also commonly referred to as Lappish and are spoken in northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. While a few of these languages, North Saami and Lule Saami, are estimated to have speakers in the thousands, most are considered critically endangered and have speaker numbers in only the single or double digits. The speakers of these languages that still remain are most commonly elders, and the languages are not regularly spoken outside of the home or the context of songs or ceremonies.