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What are endangered languages and why are they important?

We’ve got a question for you: how many languages are there? A good guess might be “a fair few”, but did you know that there are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world today? (7,100 to be precise).

Seems like a staggering figure, I know, but out of these 7,100 languages, the top ten claim around half of the world’s population. This stat gives an insight into just how few speakers some of these languages have, and how precarious their existences are. With such few speakers, some of the world’s languages are unfortunately on the path to extinction.

Known as ‘endangered languages’, how does a whole method of communication reach the point of dying out? And is there anything we can do to stop this from happening? As a company passionate about multilingual communications, we thought we’d take a look at these endangered languages, and why it’s important for us to protect them.

What is an endangered language?

With a language like English, it’s fundamentally impossible for us to imagine it ever going out of use. It has more than 1.35 billion speakers worldwide, and is an official language of over 65 countries. Impressive stats, right? But what about the languages that were commonly used in these countries before languages like English took over?

Research shows that one of the largest factors that contributes to a language dying out is the arrival of a new, more dominant one. Whether this new language be dominant socially, politically, or economically, its power can discourage speakers from learning and/or speaking the lesser known language, eventually forcing it out of use.

Okay, just because more people are speaking languages like English doesn’t mean that more obscure languages will die out overnight. In fact, there are some languages with less than 10 speakers left, which are still counted towards the grand total of 7,100. But as these speakers die, the language dies with them – another factor that plays into making a language endangered.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) break the list of endangered languages down in to five categories: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, and extinct, a ranking system based on how many speakers are left, how many learners there are, and how the language is used.

For example, languages like Kawishana and Chamicuro, both found in South America, are critically endangered, with only a handful of speakers left as Spanish has become dominant in these areas. Closer to home, languages like Cornish and Irish have both seen a decline in their amount of speakers, as most users choose to communicate in English. 

Why should they be protected?

We know what you’re thinking: with over 7,000 languages out there, we surely can’t save them all!

Well, you’re not wrong. When it comes to protecting languages, it would be pretty much impossible to stop each and every one from dying out. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be taking steps to help preserve as many languages as possible – and we’ll tell you why.

Research shows that, over the last century alone, over 400 languages have gone extinct. That’s about one every three months, and linguists predict that this trend will continue, estimating that 50% of the world’s remaining languages will be gone by the end of this century.

With 576 listed as critically endangered, and thousands more endangered or threatened, that’s a whole load of vocabulary at risk of disappearing.

But it’s not just the words themselves that will vanish – with them they will take a unique form of communication that is full of culture. Language has the means to keep alive a community’s songs, stories, and poems, and, for the languages without a written system, when the last speaker dies, so will centuries of heritage.

Languages carry and pass on human heritage, each one with its own unique charm. For example, in the Iroquoian language of Cherokee, they have no word for goodbye, only one that translates to “I will see you again”. It’s quirks like this that give a special insight into a culture, and how a specific group of people interpret human behaviour and emotion. Not everything can be directly translated into English, so, if a unique culture is to be kept alive, its language must as well.

Importance of multilingualism

Of course, keeping these languages and cultures alive is all part of preserving multilingualism. Unless we work to preserve these languages, we could eventually be on the path to becoming a monolingual species.

Okay, so what’s so great about multilingualism? Well, it goes without saying that no two languages are the same. So, if every language provides a unique way of interpreting the world, each one we lose is like losing a slice of heritage, and a different worldly outlook.

With each language comes a distinct way of thinking and solving problems, and, not only that, but a dying language could hold the key to unearthing new realms of information.

Languages contain a body of accumulated knowledge, spanning everything from geography to zoology to astronomy. If we lose language, we could be losing the key to finding out things we never knew. When you consider the fact that only one third of the world’s languages have a written system, it becomes even clearer how much we could be losing as a language’s speakers die out.

Thanks to multilingualism, we can be more culturally aware, more creative, and more knowledgeable. And the key to ensuring that we get all these benefits? Promoting the importance of preserving dying languages and, along with them, their cultures.

Here at Matinée, we are passionate communicators and language lovers. We may not be able to help with all the world’s 7,000 languages, but we are specialists in providing multilingual voiceover, subtitling, and translation services.

Whether you need a set of Greek subtitles, or a professional Finnish voiceover, our expert team will be ready to help you communicate with your global audience. With over 35 years’ experience in the industry, and a vast database of talented voice artists who can collectively speak over 80 languages, let us help you connect with people all around the world.

Why not get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you?

Call us on +44 (0) 118 958 4934

Or email project@matinee.co.uk