Languages more endangered than animals

04 September 2014
Posted by Chris Smith.

Up to a quarter of the world's existing languages are facing the threat of extinction, says UK scientists.  Taiwan Aborigines

Seven thousand languages are spoken globally but many are disappearing and the rate of loss is accelerating. When tongues become extinct, descendents of native speakers talk of the loss of cultural heritage and history, cohesion and tradition.

However, the factors that contribute to language loss, and the parts of the world most at risk, have not been well studied.

But what is clear is that the same factors that give rise to high levels of species diversity also appear to drive language diversity.

In other words, the parts of the world with the broadest range of plants and animals also tend to have the greatest language diversity, because the same factors that drive the evolution of new species also drive the evolution of new languages. These include geographical isolation and highly specialised living conditions.

This being the case, Cambridge scientist William Sutherland and his colleagues applied the same criteria that are used to identify at-risk species to the spoken word.

These include factors such as the speaker population size, how that poulation size is changing, and the scale of geographical range they inhabit.

This has enabled them to identify those languages and those regions most at-risk, including hotspots in northern Australia, northwestern USA and Canada, the tropics and the Himalayas.

In many of these areas a toxic cocktail of small population sizes coupled with rapid economic growth, which inevitably leads to adoption of more common global languages, like English, is driving the loss of indigenous tongues.

"We need to take steps to preserve these languages," says Sutherland, "because wrapped up in them is a huge amount of cultural and historical information. There are also social impacts on the next generation who have lost a language."

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