Half of the languages currently spoken are at risk of going extinct in the next century. Several campaigns aim to preserve as many of these endangered languages as possible. According to UNESCO, 50 per cent of the more than 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world today may have disappeared by 2100 if more is not done to preserve them. Languages at particular risk are those that are spoken rather than written, as there is little by way of documentation.

The vast majority of the world’s languages – an estimated 90 per cent – are spoken by 100,000 people or fewer, and just a handful of languages have become dominant. This is due in part to increased international travel and online communication allowing more people to connect. While the benefits of this cannot be doubted, the unfortunate side effect is that many of the lesser-used languages are at threat.

Of course, with the loss of these languages comes a loss of insight into entire cultures and generations of history. As a result, customs can become mysteries. It is partly through the death of a language that historians know so little of the Easter Island inhabitants who carved the great stone heads – there is no one who is able to decipher the Rongorongo script they left behind.

With thousands of languages at risk of going the same way as Rongorongo, UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme aims to preserve as many of them as possible. This means that should the languages become extinct – a real risk when they are only spoken by a small number of people – a permanent record of them will remain.

This is not the only initiative aimed at documenting the world’s endangered languages. Enduring Voices is a scheme that has received backing from the likes of National Geographic and Living Tongues, the Institute for Endangered Languages. It aims to stop languages from going extinct by visiting the places where local dialects are at threat in order to measure how the language is distributed throughout that locale. The language’s links to the biodiversity of the area is also considered. Primarily, the project aims to raise awareness on the issue of language loss.

Enduring Voices has developed a map of Language Hotspots, detailing the places where dialects are deemed most at risk. Volunteers visit these places so they can document features of the languages and talk to those who speak it fluently.

Business Insider reports that the Aboriginal languages of northern Australia are among the most threatened, with more than half of those spoken prior to the arrival of white settlers in the 18th century extinct today. Native North and South American languages are also in danger, as are numerous language families spoken in Siberia. Closer to home, Gaelic – the official language of Ireland – is also at risk. Although it continues to be taught in schools, it has fallen out of everyday use, which puts it at threat.

With one language becoming extinct every 14 days, the value of projects that aim to preserve them cannot be underestimated.

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