Language Extinction vs Ethnologue

This week is a rant about language extinction. There is a common misconception in the media that most languages are going extinct and the world is going to end up with everyone speaking English or Chinese. Someone on the Internet is wrong! 🙂

For example, the July, 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine said in the article, Vanishing Languages, “Within the next century, linguists think, nearly half of the world’s current stock of languages may disappear.”  The New York Times, PBS News Hour, the Voice of America, and many other organizations have published the same claim, with equally fuzzy attribution.

Sometimes, this sound bite is attributed to Noam Chomsky, who started as a linguist and is on the board of the Endangered Language Fund. Dr. K. David Harrison, of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages is also often mentioned.

Fortunately, this is incorrect. Of the world’s 7,102 languages, only 916 are dying (13%). Languages classified as dying are no longer being passed on naturally to new generations and are doomed without significant outside intervention. Another 1,531 languages are classified as “In Trouble” (22%). These languages are not currently dying out, but long term trends are troubling. About two-thirds of the world’s languages are healthy and either stable or actually growing.  So we can stop worrying about catastrophic decline in linguistic diversity (I know this keeps you up at night…).

These statistics come from Ethnologue, a website and 3-volume printed book now in its 18th edition. Ethnologue is considered the definitive source of language data by most of the world’s governments, the UN, ISO, and Wikipedia. It contains information on each of the world’s languages. Ethnologue has a special section devoted to endangered languages.

How does Ethnologue get all this precise data? There’s an entire sub-branch of Applied Linguistics called “Survey”. These are the real, hardcore Indiana Jones academics. Lions and tigers, and customs, oh my! I’m privileged to have several as friends.

Linguistic Surveyors actually walk the land. In each village, they ask a series of questions. “What language do you speak?” of course, but it’s much finer than that. What language do you speak at work? How about at home? In school? America is a weird country linguistically, and in many countries the answer to each of these questions is different. A female survey member will ask the village women out of earshot of the men. They also collect word lists for later comparisons.

This level of detail takes years. SIL and other linguistically oriented organizations have been doing this since the late 40’s, and the first edition of Ethnologue was published in 1951 with 40 languages. As survey has progressed, the number of languages have increased, but the pace of growth slowed significantly in the last decade. The work of macro-Survey is nearing completion.

How accurate is the Ethnologue? All of my Survey friends will quickly point out that their areas need additional survey work. However, this is mainly “around the edges” work. Where are the boundaries between two languages geographically? Are X and Y really two different languages, or just dialects of the same language? (There are academic standards for determining dialect vs language, but also still large debates.)

In general, Ethnologue is quite accurate. It is orders of magnitude more accurate than previous listings of the world’s languages. Ethnologue says there are 7,102 languages. It is conceivable that there are 7,000 or 8,000 languages, but it isn’t reasonable to conclude that there are 1,000 or 20,000.

One of my Survey friends once described sitting with village elders, asking them about their language. At first, they were unconcerned that they spoke one language and their young people exclusively spoke a nearby Language of Wider Communication (LWC). As she asked what language their grandchildren’s children would speak, it gradually dawned on the elders that their language was dying. Tears filled her eyes as she said, “It was just too late for them. There were only a handful left that spoke their language. They asked me what they could do. I didn’t have an answer.”

Endangered languages shouldn’t be exaggerated, but neither should they be ignored. When a language dies, not just a language, but a history, a culture, a way of life dies. Minority language communities should have the support they need to make a well-informed decision on how they want to deal with their own futures. All languages should be able to fully participate in education, religion, and other aspects of life.