Small languages are in danger

12.6.2018
There are 7,000 languages in the world, and it is possible that only 15% of them will be passed on to the next generation.

How many languages are there in the world? 7,000 and 23. These are the key figures for counting the world’s languages.

The larger of the two is the approximate number of languages spoken in the world. These include Dido, Low Saxon, Yaghnobi, Nukuoro and Okolod.

Stating an exact number is impossible, as it depends on when a dialect becomes a language. For example, Meänkieli, formerly considered a dialect of Finnish spoken in northern Sweden, has only been considered a full language since 2000.

However, most of the languages spoken in the world are very small: a vast number of languages only have a few hundred or even just a few dozen speakers. Or to put things in more academic terms: the median number of speakers of the languages in the world is just 7,500.

On the other end of the spectrum are the dominant languages in the world, giants such as Chinese, Spanish, English and Arabic. This brings us to another important figure: just 23 languages cover half of the world’s population. And their position is not being threatened, quite the contrary.

 “If the 20th century was considered the age when languages disappear, the 21st could be the age when they are destroyed,” says Riho Grünthal, professor of Finno-Ugric languages at the University of Helsinki. He estimates that only 10–15% of the languages spoken today will be passed on to the next generation of speakers.

If his estimate is correct, it would mean that within a hundred years, the number of languages spoken in the world would drop to less than a thousand.

Why do languages disappear?

 “It’s a question of power. Small languages are the languages of minorities. They aren’t considered important. And since the majority population does not study the minority language, it can only be used at home,” says Annika Pasanen, a linguist who has studied language extinction.

The nation state, with its ideas of a single language unifying the people, has proven to be a particularly destructive concept for languages.  “In Europe, the ‘one language, one nation’ ideology was mainstream for a long time. This also led to a dramatic drop in language skills. It’s currently completely normal to speak only one or two languages. Historically, people would have competence in many more languages,” Grünthal points out.

Sometimes language loss may be the result of practical solutions. In colonial Africa, minority languages were often left alone, but after independence, the language of the former masters was typically made the only official language, as the fledgling nation would have no other common language among its people.

Another reason is the destruction of indigenous ways of life. The world’s most language-rich area is Papua New Guinea, which has approximately 840 known languages. Indonesia has more than 700 languages and Nigeria, more than 500.

As the old tribal communities are increasingly integrated into the surrounding society, they need to learn the majority language to get by. At the same time, their own language becomes a less and less significant part of their day-to-day lives.  “Often even the speakers of small languages themselves will say that their language is not suitable for cities or organised societies. This is incorrect. Languages adapt,” emphasises Pasanen.

The consequences of the destruction

Should we be worried about the extinction of languages? Languages have been emerging and disappearing throughout history.  “It’s a question of the world’s cultural heritage. Every language describes the environment and community in which it is created. When a language is lost, a piece of culture goes with it. It’s tragic,” says Grünthal.

This is to say that the extinction of languages is as “natural” as the extinction of natural species. However, the currently ongoing language destruction is unique in the history of the world, and the result of conscious choices.

 “Ultimately the fact is that people will study and speak languages that they consider to be useful. If we want to stop the extinction of small languages, we should make it useful to speak them. People are usually lazy and don’t want to study several languages if they can make do with just one,” states Grünthal.

How big does a language need to be to survive? How small can a language be and still be preserved? Geographer Jared Diamond, who has written about languages, said in an interview with Yliopisto magazine last year that he considers the Faroese language to be the smallest viable language. Faroese has more than 50,000 speakers, a strong community and governmental support.

On a global scale, a language of 50,000 speakers is relatively large. Most languages are much smaller.

Annika Pasanen does not like to categorise languages by viability.  “Such categorisation serves no purpose, nor is it ethical. The fact is that some languages will go extinct, but I would not call any language unviable.”

You can make a difference

Even a very small language can be saved if active steps are taken. The most internationally known example is Hebrew, which had been confined to ritual use for centuries, until Israel made it its national language and revitalised it as a spoken language. Today, millions of people speak Hebrew.

Pasanen has spent most of her career studying the Inari Sami language, which is spoken around Lake Inari in northern Lapland. In the beginning of the 1990s, the language seemed to be on death’s door – there were only a few families using it.

But the speakers of Inari Sami took action, and with help from the government, began to systematically revitalise the language, particularly among children. The “language nest” kindergarten proved to be an important tool for immersing children in their language and culture. Another good policy is to cast away excessively restrictive language rules. Inari Sami has welcomed influences from the outside.

Now the language has approximately 400 speakers. Pasanen sees this as a good rate of development.  “Even very small languages can be saved, if there is sufficient motivation,” she states.

Much of it depends on the attitudes of governmental authorities. But even a single person can make a difference,” says Grünthal.  “If every member of the majority populace learned to speak a single minority language, it would change the world.”

More about the subject: Language & culture