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How Do Languages Become Extinct?

September 14, 2015

In recent years, sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists have expressed a growing concern over the number of languages that have become extinct worldwide. As speakers of a less dominant language abandon their native tongue, much of the intangible heritage of that culture is lost for all of mankind. Whether the decline in the number of speakers of a primary language is subtle or striking, language endangerment has both social and psychological consequences as a language becomes dormant. Since language is so closely linked to a group's culture, the loss of a heritage language is always accompanied with some level of social disruption.

Ethnologue is a web-based publication that provides the most current information by location of where all languages are spoken as well as the number of speakers and dialects associated with each linguistic affiliation that make up the languages of the world. Although scholars around the globe don't agree on the evidence used to determine language endangerment, Ethnologue has established generic linguistic guidelines, including etymological and grammatical criteria, that are used to determine the state of health of a given language.

The following factors are considered as essential elements in the assessment of language vitality:

  • How large is the speaker population?
  • What is the ethnic identity with a language?
  • Is that population size stable?
  • What are the residency and migration patterns of speakers?
  • How many speakers use a second language?
  • Is the language in question used by others as a second language?
  • Does the community still embrace the heritage language?
  • Is the language recognized as specific to a nation or region?
  • Does the language still have economic opportunities?
  • Are children learning the language from their elders?
  • Is the language still being taught in schools?

Among scholars, the general consensus is the safety of a language is best determined by the degree to which one generation passes on the heritage language (as compared to a second language) to the next generation. However, Ethnologue's laundry list of interrelated factors are beneficial in gauging the stages of threat. Generally speaking, once a child-bearing generation is no longer able to pass a language to the next generation (even as a second language), it is listed as dying. If no one retains a sense of identity with a language and it loses its symbolic use, the language is then reported as extinct. Current estimates suggest the world is losing a half dozen languages each year.

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