New Estimates on the Rate of Global Language Loss

The Endangered Languages Catalogue (ELCat) is a project by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Eastern Michigan University, supported by a National Science Foundation grant. The project aims to compile a comprehensive up-to-date catalogue on all languages considered to be in danger, providing information on:

  • the number of speakers, age of the youngest speakers and location of each language
  • the genetic affiliation to a linguistic family for every language and
  • an account of the documentation and data that already exist on any given language of the database.

The three-year project was initialized in 02011 and is planned in two phases. In Phase I data crucial in determining whether a given language is in danger was gathered by linguistic research teams at both universities. This phase has just been completed and the findings are available on the website of the Endangered Languages Project, the public portal of the ELCat helping raise awareness of and gathering data on endangered languages.

Endangered languages in the USA (click on the image to browse this interactive world map)

The Endangered Languages Project (ELP) is an initiative of the newly formed Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, a coalition of international linguistic and cultural organizations, and Google. The Rosetta Project and PanLex Project at The Long Now Foundation are also members of the Alliance. ELP is different from similar projects in that it is a community-driven resource. Anyone involved with endangered languages is invited to contribute to the database. This way endangered language communities as well as researchers working with them can upload, update and correct the available information and help expand the database in a collaborative effort.

The first results of this collaboration have been presented by Lyle Campbell, ELCat Project Director and linguistics professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, during the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation (ICLDC 3). The updated and newly compiled data allowed the researchers to determine which of the world’s living languages are at risk of dying out and to what extent each individual language is endangered. In order to determine whether a language is at risk, ELCat has developed the Language Endangerment Scale. The Ethnologue, a well-established comprehensive language catalogue for basic information of all living - not only endangered - languages, presented their own newly-developed scale for language endangerment, called EGIDS, at the same conference. ELCat's scale is different in that it has a smaller set of criteria, focusing exclusively on endangered languages, which serves the purpose of the Endangered Languages Catalogue. Still, there are some parallels to EGIDS. On the basis of four criteria, ELCAT's Language Endangerment Scale assigns six different levels of endangerment to each language, ranging from 0 - Safe to 5 - Critically Endangered. The criteria are:

  • Intergenerational Transmission (How old are the youngest speakers and is the language passed on to younger generations?)
  • Absolute number of speakers
  • Speaker number trends (Is the number of speakers declining, stable or increasing?)
  • Domains of use of the language (Is the language only used in certain (e.g. informal) contexts or for every domain in life from home to media, education and government?)

The findings yielded by this scaling and the updated database provide us with new knowledge on language loss. Earlier estimates lead to the prospects of the death of 50-90% of the world’s languages by the end of the century. Another claim that has been made very frequently when talking about language endangerment is that one language goes extinct every two weeks. Both estimates are, however, not in accordance with ELCat’s new data as presented at the ICLDC 3 earlier this month.

The source of the prediction of the death of up to 90% of all languages by the end of the 21st century is a 01992 paper titled The World's Languages in Crisis [1] by Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and expert on the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak, whose last native speaker passed away in 02008. Krauss arrived at this estimate based on the best available sources at that time. This paper and the presentation Krauss gave on that topic at the Linguistic Society of America's annual meeting in 01991 can be seen as a pivotal moment for the awareness of language loss.

Over two decades later, on the basis of ELCat’s much more comprehensive database (and recent results of the Ethnologue support this), we know that Krauss’ estimates were too high.* The application of the Language Endangerment Scale to all known languages has revealed that a total of 3,176 can be considered to be endangered. This is about 46% of all living languages, far from Krauss' 90% worst case scenario. Nontheless, Krauss’ lower threshold of 50% might after all become sad truth if endangered languages keep losing ground.

Another number that had to be corrected is the estimated extinction of one language every 2 weeks. This figure has been repeated so often in the discourse on language death that it is hard to trace back where it originated from. Even though Krauss did not make this claim, it seems most likely that it was calculated based on the estimates presented in his paper, as for instance linguist David Crystal did in his 02000 book Language Death (p. 19). [2]

ELCat's new findings, however, suggest that language death progresses at the rate of about one language in three months rather than two weeks. [3] This estimate is based on the number of languages that we know have become extinct in the recent past rather than estimates of how many languages might go extinct in the future.

Though it is good news that language loss is not proceeding quite as quickly as we previously thought, this does not mean that linguistic diversity is on the safe side. The looming loss of almost half of the world’s languages is sufficient proof for the “ongoing crisis of language loss," as Campbell phrased it. The new findings also show that the rate at which languages die out has highly accelerated in the last half century. Campbell concluded:

"These losses are still horrendous…There is no need to repeat the inaccurate claim [that one language goes extinct each two weeks]...What we see is shocking enough."

Today 457 or 9.2% of the living languages have fewer than 10 speakers and are very likely to die out soon, if no revitalization efforts are made. 639 of the languages known to have existed are already extinct – 10% of all languages.

Moreover, we now know that since 1960 we have lost as many as 28 entire language families. This is even more devastating from the viewpoint of linguistic diversity. A language family is a group of languages that have emerged from a common proto-language. Linguists can reconstruct such relations if a set of languages share certain grammatical and phonetic features. The number of languages in a language family can vary from over a thousand (as in the Niger-Congo and Austronesian language families) to just a few. Languages that cannot be related to any other language are called isolates. The language family with the most speakers is Indo-European, encompassing languages like English, Spanish, Russian or Hindi - just to name a few of the over 200 languages belonging to this family. But a language family does not have to have 3 billion speakers, as in the case of Indo-European, for its extinction to have a considerable impact on linguistic diversity.

ELCat uses the metaphor of biodiversity to illustrate the gravity of the loss of an entire language family: If we compare the extinction of a language to the extinction of an animal species, the death of a language family would equal the loss of a whole branch of the animal kingdom, for example all felines.[4] We know of a hundred language families that have gone extinct over the course of history - 24% of the world's linguistic diversity. But the fact that 28 of them have gone extinct over the relatively short time span of the last 50 years is symptomatic of the accelerated rate of language loss we are experiencing in recent times.

Now that all available information on the entirety of endangered languages has been gathered and updated, the next step in the ELCat project is to fill the gaps, expand the available data and introduce a measure of how much documentation exists for each of the 3,176 endangered languages. The ELP website already provides some bibliographical references on existing documentation for a number of languages, alongside all sorts of texts, video and audio material uploaded by researchers or native speakers. The aim for Phase II of the ELCat project is to complete this information, especially for languages where there has been very little information to date.

The purpose of the information provided in the database is manifold. It allows researchers to work collaboratively on the expansion of the information, it aims to point to and interest linguists and future researchers in the least documented languages, it invites endangered language speech communities to contribute information on their language and provides material for preservation and revitalization programs. ELCat and the Endangered Languages Project hope that this way their community-driven database helps raising public awareness of language endangerment and can contribute to stopping or reversing the language loss.

Listen to Lyle Campbell's talk at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation.

[1] Krauss, Michael E. 1992. The World's Languages in Crisis. Language 68(1): 4-10.

[2] Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Campbell, Lyle; Lee, Nala Huiying; Okura, Eve; Simpson, Sean; Ueki, Kaori. 2013. New Knowledge: Findings from the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (“ELCat”). 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation.

[4] Aristrar, Anthony et al. About the Catalogue of Endangered Languages. University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

*New findings of the Ethnologue suggest that the state of languages in Australia, New Zealand and Northern America is very close to this estimate with only 9% of the languages of Australia and New Zealand and 7% of the languages of the USA and Canada still being vital, the rest being in danger (or extinct). On a global scale, however, considering e.g. the vitality of 80% of Subsaharan languages, this estimate is too high.

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