Endangered Languages and Dialects

Half of the 6,000 plus spoken languages today will disappear by the end of the century.


You’ve heard of endangered species but you might not have heard of endangered languages. I assure you that I did not make up the term. There are many languages and dialects that are in risk of becoming extinct. I’m not referring to Latin, which is still taught in universities and some secondary schools. I’m referring to languages and dialects that are uncommon to many of us and that may not have had a chance to be preserved (yet). Especially dialects, which I believe are the most endangered.

UNESCO classifies 4 levels of endangerment in languages:

Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).
Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.
Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.
Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

(See Wikipedia’s List of Endangered Languages in Europe.)

Yesterday morning, I read an article on a Scottish fisherman who passed away last week at 92, taking away with him the Cromarty dialect (see article here). Every time I read articles on ‘the last native speaker’ of this language or that dialect, I feel rather down. As someone with a great passion for languages and history, I enjoy picking up new languages and dialects, as I see it as a key to understanding cultures and people. I enjoy finding patterns and seeing how we’re all connected. (I really should have studied linguistics!) Throughout the centuries, the need to have one or a few common languages per country in order to maintain order has endangered many languages and dialects. There were times when speaking the local dialect or language was forbidden, which prevented many from learning the dialect/language and caused native speakers to forget.

I’d found out one day, for instance, that at one point, Taiwanese had been forbidden in homes in Taiwan, where at the time, Mandarin Chinese was enforced to be spoken at all times. I’m not sure when they changed the rules, but there are now native speakers who had picked it up when they were older. Today, it’s a way locals can speak ‘privately’ without having Mandarin speakers know what they’re talking about. It’s also used quite commonly for jokes, particularly in [dubbed] movies!

As much as it is easy to learn one common language so that we may all be able communicate with one another (quickly), I believe it is valuable to learn at least one other language, and even a dialect, depending on where one is. There are words that often describe situations or objects or ideas better than words in our native tongue. Yet quite often, it is the most convenient way for communication with those who do not speaking a main language.

For example, while living in Munich, Bavaria, I found it useful to learn at least a bit of Bavarian, despite the fact that I rarely got to use it. However, it certainly came in handy when I was in a more rural setting, where many of the seniors spoke in thick Bavarian accents (and quite often, in the dialect itself!). Had I never learned any Bavarian, I would have been absolutely confused. Confusion would have turned into frustration, which would eventually cause grave misunderstandings between us.

We might not be able to learn all the languages or dialects in the world. We might not even be able to preserve them all, despite the fact that UNESCO, Google, universities, etc. are making an effort to save them. Yet while there are people who still speak an endangered language or dialect, let us pick up a little and practise with them. Let us leave them with hope, knowing that their native tongue and their identity are appreciated. Perhaps we may even find ourselves adopting certain words or idioms!