As one of the most important languages in global communication, English is unavoidable today in most parts of the world. The rise of the Internet and globalization have raised the use of English to an even higher and unprecedented level. However, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has registered about 6,000 languages. English is just one of these. What about the rest?
According to UNESCO, the world is on the verge of losing more than 3,000 languages, unless language heritage and culture are conserved. In the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, about 50 European languages are under threat. France alone has 14 of them. Even Siberia has about 40 languages in danger.
The situation is much better in Asia and the Pacific, thanks to multilingual governments. Papua New Guinea, a country of 800 languages, the most diverse in the world, has only 88 endangered dialects. But the rise of globalization is now becoming a threat to these multilingual states as well. India tops the chart with 196 endangered languages. (Second is the US, with close to 192.)
In the past three generations 200+ languages have become extinct and about 178 have seen their speaker count drop to between 10 and 150. UNESCO has rated 538 languages as critically endangered, 502 as severely endangered, 632 as definitely endangered, and 607 as unsafe.
According to experts, a language is rated endangered when 30% of its children stop learning it. This language ignorance then passes to the next generation. In this way the language approaches extinction. In addition to globalization and the Internet, education also plays a big role in endangering a language in developing countries. Students need a common platform of language in which to study. The same happens at work. A student going abroad to work or study must be ready for his mother tongue to become a secondary language for him.
In India, parents train their children to converse in English as soon as they go to school, and no doubt they have valid reasons for doing so. The new syllabus at many educational boards offers a choice between Sanskrit and French as an elective. To learn French is absolutely fine, but at the cost of indigenous Indian languages like Sanskrit, it must be avoided.
In many disputed regions, military and government policies also play a major role in the disappearance of indigenous languages.
The Enduring Voices Project by the National Geographic Channel and the Endangered Languages Project (HRELP) are two of a number of initiatives aiming to save these endangered languages. As the deputy chief of UNESCO said, "We should feel proud to speak our own languages. We really must do so.
Data Source: UNESCO Annual Reports. Image Credit: Shawn Econo