• Around 1,500 known languages may no longer be spoken by the end of this century.
  • Current levels of language loss could triple in the next 40 years.
  • Greater education and mobility marginalize some minor languages.
  • One language per month could disappear, without intervention.

There are 7,000 documented languages currently spoken across the world, but half of them could be endangered, according to a new study. It is predicted that 1,500 known languages may no longer be spoken by the end of this century.

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) analyzed thousands of languages to identify factors that put endangered ones at risk. The findings highlight a link between higher levels of schooling and language loss, as regionally dominant languages taught in class often overshadow indigenous tongues.

A second factor exacerbating the threat to endangered languages is the density of roads in an area. While contact with other languages can help preserve indigenous ones, exposure to the wider world may not.

“We found that the more roads there are, connecting country to city, and villages to towns, the higher the risk of languages being endangered. It’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages,” said Professor Lindell Bronham, co-author of the study.

Lost language diversity

The factors identified by the study could help explain why just a handful of languages dominate global communication.

language society words diversity inclusion mobility education english chinese mandarin hindi spanish arabic
English is the world’s most widely-spoken language.
Image: Statista

Mandarin Chinese has the most native speakers, which is unsurprising given China’s huge population, but English is the world’s most widely used language with around 1.35 billion speakers.

The study, published in Nature, Ecology and Evolution, shows the extent to which the world’s language diversity is under threat. It estimates the equivalent of one language is currently lost within every three-month period. But levels of language loss could actually triple in the next 40 years, with at least one language per month disappearing unless measures are taken.

“When a language is lost or is ‘sleeping’ as we say for languages that are no longer spoken, we lose so much of our human cultural diversity,” said Professor Bromham.

“Many of the languages predicted to be lost this century still have fluent speakers, so there is still the chance to invest in supporting communities to revitalize indigenous languages and keep them strong for future generations.”

language society words diversity inclusion mobility education english chinese mandarin hindi spanish arabic japanese portuguese bengali
Digital solutions could help preserve the world’s endangered languages.
Image: Unsplash

Can technology help save indigenous languages?

While past studies have blamed the digital realm for causing the demise of some indigenous dialects - by focusing attention on a few major languages at the expense of smaller ones - today’s tech-entwined world could hold a solution.

There are Internet sites and apps aplenty to help new speakers learn languages like Spanish, English and Mandarin, but these now extend to specialist apps designed to teach endangered languages or help preserve them. Ma! Iwaidja, for example, is an app that enables those working with speakers of the Iwaidja indigenous Australian language to record words, phrases and translations. It also contains a dictionary and a word maker to help users tackle grammar and syntax.

Another initiative is the Rosetta Project, a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build an open-access digital library of human languages.

The collection contains around 100,000 pages of documents and recordings for more than 2,500 languages microscopically etched on nickel disks for long-term storage. The project draws attention to the “drastic and accelerated loss of the world’s languages” and could help preserve many endangered and “sleeping” languages for future generations.

The UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL2022-2032), which begins this year, also aims to engage the global community with the critical issue of language loss.

The 10-year initiative continues the work of the UN’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. As part of its Global Action Plan, IDIL2022-2032, it is creating a network of international stakeholders focused on protecting the rights of indigenous people to revitalize and preserve their languages.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.