Saving Endangered Languages

A few thousand languages are endangered.  Should we care?  The next few posts will be on this subject.

There is a certain pathos to the idea of a single speaker, master of a language nobody speaks anymore, living in a hut somewhere alone and unable to communicate.  In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond conjures up the last survivor on Easter Island, after the canoes are destroyed, the trees disappear, and everyone else has died.  Every once in a while there is a newspaper article about a lone last speaker passing away in an isolation almost beyond our ability to imagine.

According to the site ethnologue, There are 243 languages in the United States: some of which (Abnaki, Alsea, Barbareno, Iowa-Oto and many others) live only in memory as they are extinct; some (Crow, Cajun French (Louisiana Creole French is holding its own), Kansa, Kashaya and many others) are decreasing, one, Zuni, is increasing.

The names of the languages evoke a rich, colorful past which we have claimed as our own by naming things or places after the communities who spoke them: Aleut, Apache, Arapaho, Biloxi, Catawba, Cayuga, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chinook, Coeur d’Alene, and that is only the A through C’s.

There are three kinds of sign language: American Sign Language, Hawai’i Pidgin Sign Language, and Plains Indian Sign Language.

Some languages are spoken in immigrant communities, like Yiddish, various Chinese languages, Croatian, several varieties of French and German, Russian, and, of course, 28,100,000 native Spanish speakers.

I could just stop here, as this list bespeaks so much, but future posts will go into this issue farther.

Exercise:  Have each student identify one or more of his or her heritage languages, and then look them up at  Where are these languages spoken?  Where are they spoken in the U.S.? How many native speakers are there in the U.S. and in the world?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *