Pay attention to the street signs of France’s outlying towns, and you’ll notice that many of them are inscribed not only in French but also in another, less familiar language. The other words are usually smaller and often italicized, almost always appearing just beneath the French writing. The second language varies from region to region, though in many places (especially cities and Paris’ massive metropolitan area), every street sign is written in French alone.
This small, italicized font represents the regional languages of France — Occitan, Breton, Gallo, Basque, Alsatian, Norman, and a few others. For hundreds of years, as France stewed in a linguistic melting pot, most of the country’s inhabitants couldn’t actually speak French. Although kings used the language in their courts and academics standardized it in their writings, few people spoke it outside of the Paris area. In 1790, one writer estimated that, out of 26 million citizens, only three million spoke French as a native language, and the vast majority communicated with their friends and family in other regional languages.
That all changed after the Revolution, when the government decided to impose French on all citizens, simultaneously stigmatizing the other languages. Before long, schoolteachers were encouraged to punish their students for speaking anything besides French, and those policies only intensified in the 1880s, when beatings and other forms of corporal punishment became common.
Today, the regional languages survive, but their speakers are few and far between, and those people always speak French as well. Schools can teach regional languages as elective courses, but the younger generations can’t really speak conversationally, even if their grandparents or great-grandparents could just a few decades ago.
But this story isn’t uniquely French. In fact, Occitan, Breton, Basque, and the others are faring better than thousands of endangered languages around the world. Under the pressure of globalization, many minor languages are becoming less and less healthy — and the prognosis is usually pretty discouraging.
Everywhere from Oklahoma to Papua New Guinea, languages are rapidly going from vulnerable to endangered to extinct.
What are endangered languages?
Our world is currently home to about 7,000 living languages, which sounds like a fairly robust number. However, the worldwide distribution of speakers weighs heavily in favor of just a few tongues (like Mandarin and the other variants of Chinese, as well as Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic), meaning that thousands of languages boast fewer than 10,000 speakers. In far too many cases, scholars believe that there are fewer than 10 surviving speakers of a given language.
A language dies when it has lost all of its native speakers. And with younger generations growing up predominantly speaking major languages, rather than endangered ones, linguists know what’s coming next. As such, many researchers estimate that more than 40 percent of the planet’s 7,000 surviving languages will be extinct by 2100.
Of course, there are good reasons for individuals to turn to more common languages; by doing so, they can reap economic and political advantages that may not be available to non-speakers. But endangered languages often contain a treasure trove of information about medicine, botany, and other fields of science, and each language enriches the cultural diversity of the group that speaks it — so the oncoming mass extinction is, in fact, a big deal.
As linguist Stephen R. Anderson explained, “When a language dies, a world dies within it… A community’s connection with its past, its traditions and its base of specific knowledge are all typically lost as the vehicle linking people to that knowledge is abandoned.”
In short, a huge portion of the group’s culture vanishes into the ether, even if the group is still alive and its other cultural practices are intact.
How can we protect our languages?
Realistically, we can’t save every endangered language. We have to accept that within a few generations, many of them will be gone.
Even so, we can still be their caretakers while they’re dying, and we can remember them when they’re gone. And, when possible, we can revitalize the languages that aren’t yet in too much trouble.
One of the best actions we can take now is to document the endangered languages spoken in our own families or regions. Luckily, several groups have done so by creating websites with vocabulary lists, ethnographic interviews, pronunciation guides, and other resources. In many cases, users can even contribute to the database by uploading their own recordings or videos. (A few examples of these sites include the Endangered Languages Project, Language Landscape, and Native Languages of the Americas. The Endangered Languages Project and Language Landscape are global, while Native Languages of the Americas focuses on indigenous languages spoken in North and South America.)
We can also try to learn the languages that are closely linked to the land we live on. In this regard, Wales’ success story is truly impressive — the government has actively promoted the Welsh language for years, and about 19 percent of the population speaks it. Last year, the government even unveiled an initiative to help the language reach a total of one million speakers by 2050.
Additionally, Ireland has been somewhat successful in revitalizing the Irish language, partly through classes taught in schools and partly by re-emphasizing its status as one of the country’s official languages. The government also protects designated Gaeltachts, or regions where a significant percentage of the population speaks Irish as a first language — but, as you might expect, the initiatives invite a lot of public debate, and not everyone is convinced that the government is doing enough.
Even so, there are other ways to learn vulnerable or endangered languages. Although Duolingo is best known for its Spanish, French, and German courses, the service also has offerings in a few less common languages — like Welsh (330,000 active learners) and Irish (one million active learners). What’s more, the app is launching a Hawaiian course later this year, and anyone can suggest a new course; bilingual individuals can even contribute to ongoing curriculum development.
If nothing else, it’s a good idea to look up the vulnerable, endangered, or extinct languages that were once spoken in your area. (UNESCO has designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, so you’ll join a worldwide network of individuals dedicated to protecting these languages.) By supporting the groups who speak or spoke them, you can learn about their traditions, culture, and history — and if you find ongoing projects to preserve or revitalize these languages, you can get involved locally. From creating language immersion programs to translating “Star Wars” into Navajo, you’d be surprised by the creative ways that groups are trying to keep their languages alive.
Have you come across any interesting revitalization projects? Or have you tried to learn an endangered language in any way? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
Header image by Dave Clubb