World Languages Face Extinction

ByLeela Jacinto

Feb. 9, 2001 -- In 1974, Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man, and with him died the Manx language, lost to the world — forever.

A similar end awaited the Ubykh language. When farmer Tefvik Esemic died in rural Turkey in 1992, so did Ubykh.

As the world's youth increasingly shun native languages in their bid to fit in to mainstream society and the languages that dominate, the future of many languages rests with older members of tribes and communities.

In the next 100 years, experts estimate 90 percent of the world's languages will be extinct or virtually extinct.

A UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) report released Thursday warns thousands of languages may disappear and with it, vast reserves of the world's culture and traditions.

The world currently houses between 5,000 and 7,000 spoken languages, with more than 2,500 estimated to be in very real danger of extinction.

Of these, says Graham Dutfield of the Oxford Center for the Environment, Ethics and Society and one of the authors of the report, more than 553 are in imminent peril as they are spoken by only up to 100 people.

"When you reach a situation where there are 1,000 speakers or less who speak a mother tongue, the language is in danger," says Dutfield.

Forced Off the Globe

But most people who are born into one or two of the world's "mega-languages" such as English, Spanish, French or Arabic understand just how imperative the pull of these languages can be.

As globalization ratchets up the volume of trade and the mass media spreads a culture packaged in televisions, CDs and walkmans, the death bells of indigenous languages have been pealing louder than ever before.

"Language has always changed throughout history," said Dutfield. "But the commercial pressure to assimilate has never been stronger than in the past 10 years."

A number of the world's languages have disappeared thanks to conquerors, colonizers, dictators and individuals with a zest to change things.

In some of the more notable cases, Welsh schoolchildren at the start of the 20th century were beaten for not speaking English, and many young Australian Aborigines were taken away from their parents and adopted by whites to "help" them assimilate.

Last year, both the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Canadian government formally apologized for preventing native inhabitants from speaking their languages.

But a cultural resurgence in many parts of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand has seen concerted movements to preserve languages. On the Isle of Man, for instance, there has been a movement to teach young children Manx.

Losing More Than Language

The problem, said Dutfield, becomes pressing among indigenous peoples who are increasingly coming in contact with the outside world and are in danger of being swallowed by it.

Nearly 4,000 to 5,000 of the world's languages are classed as indigenous.

The real danger, according to experts, is that when a language dies, not only does the world's linguistic diversity receive a blow, but entire systems of knowledge are lost.

"Languages are repositories of vast systems of knowledge," says Dutfield. "When a language dies, we do not know how much we are losing with it."

However, the Internet has enabled a number of languages in the throes of death to live to cyberspace.

With audio files and embedded texts, a number of languages are being given a chance to survive, even if it's only in a virtual world.

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