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1500 Languages In Danger Of Being Lost This Century

Australia leads the way in language loss, while experts there call for renewed bilingual education.

An increasingly interconnected world has doomed 1,500 human languages to extinction by the end of this century.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution and led by the Australian National University claims that approximately half of the world’s 7,000 recognized languages are endangered. “We found that without immediate intervention, language loss could triple in the next 40 years. And by the end of this century, 1,500 languages could cease to be spoken,” said lead author Lindell Bromham.

Bromham noted that 2022 marks the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages and called for funding and action to preserve languages at risk. “When a language is lost or is ‘sleeping,’ as we say for languages that are no longer spoken,” Bromham said, “we lose so much of our human cultural diversity. Every language is brilliant in its own way.”

The study focused on the widest variety of predictors of the disappearance of language diversity. It found that the level of language endangerment increased along with the number of years of education. Researchers say school curriculums that support proficiency in indigenous languages as well as regionally dominant languages could help.

However, Bromham also found other startling factors affecting the issue. “Across the 51 factors or predictors we investigated, we also found some really unexpected and surprising pressure points. This included road density,” she said.

“Contact with other local languages is not the problem. In fact, languages in contact with many other indigenous languages tend to be less endangered,” she said. It is roads connecting rural and urban communities that are associated with language endangerment, she found. “It’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages,” Bromham said.

A page from a book on languages used by aboriginal tribes in the western district of Victoria, Australia. This page covers numerals. (Public domain/Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Researchers say their study offers guidance in preserving languages spoken by Australia’s First Nations, or aboriginal, peoples.

“Australia has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of language loss worldwide,” co-author Felicity Meakins of the University of Queensland said. Prior to European colonization in the late 1700s, she said, natives spoke 250 different languages and were often multilingual. “Now, only 40 languages are still spoken and just 12 are being learnt by children,” Meakins said.

Australia currently spends $20.89 per capita of indigenous people on languages, she said, while Canada spends $69.30 and New Zealand spends $296.44. But Meakins says there is still time to “revitalize indigenous languages and keep them strong for future generations” while there remain fluent speakers left in the population.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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