18 World Languages Have One Remaining Speaker

There are more than 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world. The U.N. estimates that half of those languages could disappear by the end of the century if nothing is done to save them.

Last Words

It's already happening: the 2010 edition of the U.N. Atlas of Endangered Languages says 18 languages have only one remaining speaker. Once that speaker dies, the language will almost surely die with him or her. The Atlas also classifies 574 languages as "critically endangered," a designation that depends on a number of factors including how easy it is to find learning materials for the language, government attitudes toward the language, and whether older generations pass down the language to younger ones.

But if untold numbers of languages have died out through human history, why does it matter if a language is endangered? Languages are more than just a form of communication. They carry with them important information about a culture, from its history and spiritual practices to certain kinds of knowledge that may be essential to human survival.

Languages are also integral to a person's identity. The U.N. Atlas sums up this point by quoting poet Alitet Nemtushkin, who belongs to the Evenki ethnic group of Northern Asia: "How can I believe the foolish idea/That my language is weak and poor/If my mother's last words/Were in Evenki?"

Hear linguist Arika Okrent discuss why language die — and how they evolve — on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunesStitcher, and Gretta.

What does the world lose when a language dies?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. English, Mandarin, and other widespread languages are dominating as people learn them in order to assimilate into the global culture. 02:30

  2. Technology has also opened up new ways to preserve languages. 03:23

  3. A language survives if you have the choice to learn it. 05:29

Rare audio of indigenous languages saved by invention 100 years later

Written by Curiosity Staff June 22, 2016

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