Already today, several of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages face a serious risk of extinction. “For example, Ainu, a language in Japan, is now seriously threatened, with only 10 native speakers left,” said lead study author Tatsuya Amano at the University of Cambridge in England.
The United Nations, last year, stated that around half of the languages spoken around the world face extinction by the end of the century is nothing is done to save them.
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Similarities between endangered languages and species
The study is a bit outside of Amano’s wheelhouse as he typically works as a conservation scientist focused species protection but sees similarities between language and species extinction.
“Both are seriously threatened, and the distribution of linguistic and biological diversity is very similar,” Amano told Live Science. “Of course languages and species are fundamentally different in many aspects, but I thought I might be able to contribute to this urgent problem — language endangerment — using what I have learnt.”
“We found that at the global scale, language speaker declines are strongly linked to economic growth — that is, declines are particularly occurring in economically developed regions,” Amano said.
Amano pointed out that languages in the tropics and in the Himalayas are most at risk given the variety of local languages while the regions are experience significant growth. This forces the people in these regions to adopt a common language as their economies boom.
Economic growth is key
“We showed that this is a global phenomenon, which I think is the most important in our findings,” Amano said. “So economically developed countries with many languages, such as the United States and Australia, need immediate attention if their languages are to be conserved.”
Native Americans, for example, have largely abandoned their native languages in the interest of economic opportunities that come with the adoption of English.
Education policies also play a big role in whether a language is at risk. These policies “can be very different among countries and even within each country, and these factors may explain more detailed patterns in language endangerment,” Amano said. “But it was almost impossible to collect such information at the global scale for this study. This will be the next step for our project.”