Earlier today, the AP reported on UNESCO’s release of the third edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The atlas is available online for free, and a print version will be released in May.
The atlas maps the location and gives details about each of the 2,500 languages that linguists classify as endangered or are already extinct.
According to UNESCO, these languages will probably vanish before the end of the century if efforts are not made to preserve them now.
What languages are on the list, and where are they spoken?
Endangered languages are everywhere, actually. If you look up UK on the Atlas, you’ll see 12 languages. Four of these, Norn, Manx, Cornish and Alderney French, are already extinct. Scots and Welsh are rated as “unsafe,” while Yiddish, Romany, Irish and Scottish Gaelic show up as “definitely endangered.” Guernsey French and Jersey French are severely endangered.
The US has 191 endangered languages, mostly belonging to Native American tribes like the Menominee, which has 35 native speakers remaining. Sioux, the language of the great Native American chief Sitting Bull, is listed as “unsafe” with 25,000 speakers.
Then, there are languages like Silbo Gomero, spoken by about 1,000 people on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. This language is made up entirely of whistles, to help shepherds communicate over long distances on the island. However, Silbo Gomero may benefit from the efforts of Busuu.com, a language learning website based in Spain that teaches endangered languages to people all over the world.
Can the Internet help preserve this language?
In the Associated Press article referenced above, Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said “We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language.”
Hopefully, projects like Busuu.com can help people learn to take pride in their native languages. Having people across the globe learn endangered languages like Silbo Gomero can certainly help preserve a record of the language, but what’s really important is that the people of La Gomera keep speaking it and passing along to their children.
Preserving languages isn’t just about the number of speakers-it’s also about keeping the culture of the people speaking the language intact.