It’s estimated that there are over 500 extinct languages in the world. But what’s causing this and how do we save the ones that still exist?

Whilst it is impossible to give an exact number of languages that still exist in the world today, we can estimate that there are around 7000 still being actively used. This means that the number of extinct languages is equivalent to over 7% of the languages which still exist today. This might not seem a lot, but when you realise that the number of languages which became extinct in the 19th and 20th centuries is more than the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries combined, it shows you the alarming rate at which languages on earth are disappearing.

Experts believe that by the end of the 21st century, 80% of the world’s languages will have become extinct. This is because the 80 major languages, the ones that you and I could probably guess between us such as English, Russian and Mandarin, are spoken by roughly 80% of the global population, compared to the 3,500 marginal languages which are used by only 0.2% of the people on Earth. People talk about endangered animals, but it seems our languages are under a far greater threat. But what’s causing the extinction of languages, and how can we stop it?

It’s now thought that a language dies every fortnight, and unlike the death of a living thing such as an animal or plant, the death of a language goes largely unnoticed. The main causes of language extinction are globalisation and migration, which is when economic pressures force people to move out of their native villages and into the cities. Here, the choice of languages is usually restricted to one or two, and if people are to find work or even survive in this metropolis, they must assimilate and learn the language that everybody else speaks. This has a particular effect on children, who may stop speaking the language of their ancestors in favour of the mainstream language used at school and in popular culture.

The challenge of saving a language that is in danger of becoming extinct relies on the last remaining speakers to promote its usage, and for researchers and scientists to document it as much as they can. New technology means we can preserve a language digitally, but this costs significant time and money. To do this for every endangered language would take longer than our lifetime, and by that point, it may be too late. The responsibility must fall on the heads of governments in the countries whose minor languages face extinction, to create initiatives for the preservation of these languages and to promote their usage in schools and the place of work.

Are you surprised at the number of languages that are extinct or face extinction? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.