Hundreds of our languages are teetering on the brink of extinction, and we may lose more than just words if we allow them to die out. For example, the Cherokee language is a minority language threatened with demise.
Since there are so many imperilled languages, it’s impossible to label just one as the rarest or most endangered, but at least 100 around the world have only a handful of speakers – from Ainu in Japan to Yagan in Chile. It can be difficult to find these people too. There are some famous cases – Marie Smith Jones passed away in Alaska in 2008, taking the Eyak language with her – but usually they are older individuals (often in failing health) who don’t advertise their language skills. “The smaller the number of speakers, the harder it is to get an accurate headcount,” says David Harrison, chair of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College, and co-founder of the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.
Cherokee is far from the only minority language
threatened with demise. Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century (some put that figure as high as 90%, however). Today, the top ten languages in the world claim around half of the world’s population. Can language diversity be preserved, or are we on a path to becoming a monolingual species?
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