The Last of their Kind

The Last of their Kind – Languages Facing Extinction

“Haatelk Wäilkuumen!” –You have just been greeted in Saterland Frisian, a dialect spoken in a relatively small area in North-East Germany. According to differing estimates, Saterland Frisian is still used by just 1500 to 2500 speakers in the municipality of Saterland, in the district of Cloppenburg, North Germany. Saterland Frisian is only one of approximately 3000 languages that are, to a greater or lesser degree, endangered. Get to know a few of these languages here and learn why it is important to rescue these ‘endangered species’.

574 Languages Worldwide in the ‘Red Zone’

According to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger there are 574 languages which are classified as ‘critically endangered’, lie in the red zone and will accordingly die out in approximately one to two generations. This concerns languages of which only grandparents or the older generations have a command, and whilst the parent generation can understand the language they themselves no longer actively pass it on to their children. Today many of these languages have only 100 or fewer active speakers left worldwide. These include exotic languages such as Awakatek, Yarawi, Judeo-Tunisian Arabic, Budong-Budong, Great Andamanese and Wangaaybuwan.

Australia – a Real ‘Language Cemetery’

In Australia alone, approximately 255 ‘minority languages’ are severely endangered, as by now the majority of aborigines have adopted English as their native language. At the end of the 18th century there were still approximately 500 to 600 ethnic groups, using almost as many languages or dialects. Several dozen aboriginal languages, from Yiri to Yinggarda, are today spoken by fewer than ten people. Languages such as Djangun and Mangerr have just one speaker. Some languages – for example Tasmanian – have already died out. Thus Australia is today deemed to be the largest ‘language cemetery’ in the world. Only about 20 aboriginal languages are still taught at mother tongue schools.

Who is to Blame for Language Death?

Some people think that the unstoppable advance of the English language has played a large part in this linguicide. This assumption is not completely unfounded, insomuch as many languages and dialects of the indigenous peoples were lost in the course of British colonisation of North America and Australia. Today approximately 1.5 billion people speak English as their native language or as their first foreign language. But linguicide cannot be blamed on colonisation alone. A language can be smoothly superseded by another with greater prestige and higher influential power. Here factors such as economy and trade, fashion, art, science and above all the media play a major role. The absence of writing systems and a lack of special language-promoting educational institutions finishes many languages off. The so-called world languages prove this: every other person is already a native speaker of one of the 12 world languages:
English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, German, Japanese and Korean.

Why Should Endangered Languages even be Preserved?

UNESCO estimates that, in most regions of the world, more than 90 percent of the indigenous languages will have been replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century. This means a catastrophic loss of culture, traditions and values, as language also always reflects individual identity. It is the most important means of social contact and the medium through which a community hands down its culture. The interconnectedness of language and culture, anchored in vocabulary, is exemplified in the classification of everyday objects and of animals and plants. When a language dies out, culture-specific knowledge is also lost. Furthermore, with the death of a language, examples of human thought and ways to express yourself are lost. Many languages lack certain distinctions, which to us are obvious, or conversely express concepts completely differently. The example of Inuit, which had many different names for the word ‘snow’, is well known. Languages are also highly valuable from an anthropological perspective. Indeed, the relationship between Ket, a nearly extinct Siberian language, and the Navajo languages of the North American Indians has been proven.

This relationship could be proof of an anthropological connection between the Siberian and the North American indigenous peoples.

What Is Being Done to Rescue Endangered Languages?

A language, then, can only truly be rescued when it is strengthened ‘from the inside out’. It must earn a reputation and its existence must be valued, for example through media presence, teaching in schools, documentation and textualisation. So-called ‘apprenticeship programmes’, in which older people accompany their grandchildren and other children of preschool age in their everyday lives and in doing so pass on their language, are particularly effective for language preservation . In the meantime, there are also language centres and associations in many countries which contribute to the preservation of endangered languages. The best example for the success of such measures is Hebrew. The revival of the biblical language began with the founding of the ‘Hebrew Language Committee’ in 1889, and today the language is once again spoken by approximately nine million people. The German language also has Hebrew to thank for many expressions, proving that rescuing endangered languages can contribute hugely to its own variety of expression.

So if you are one day ripped off by a crafty „ganef“, shortly after which you have „tsuris“ with the circling vultures of bankruptcy, and must become a „schnorrer“ thanks to this „glitch“, at least you know that you couldn’t have said all this without the Hebrew language!

UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger ( – Endangered Languages (
World Languages (
Spiegel Online – 100 Questions: Why do languages die? (…/1000-fragen-wie-sterben-sprachen-a-…)
Community for Endangered Peoples – Endangered Languages (…/2010/MR-Report_Nr.63.-BedrohteSprache…)
Community for Endangered Languages – Languages Disappear, information brochure (