Status of the Ethnosphere: New Statistics about Language Loss Across the World

Author: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2014)
Original URL: https://www.ethnosproject.org/status-of-the-ethnosphere/


Statistics and Folklore

Despite popular and persistent statistics, we really do use more than 10% of our brains. We don’t actually eat an average of seven spiders a year, and suicide rates simply do not jump during the holidays. When statistics become sound bites, they sometimes become folklore.

One such statistic I see periodically in my research is the one that reads something like this: “About half of the estimated 7,000 languages still spoken around the world will disappear by the end of this century.” This assertion is usually coupled with a statement to the effect that “every two weeks a language dies.”

I first heard this spoken by Wade Davis in a recording of his 2003 TED talk: “And the great indicator of that, of course, is language loss. When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet… And of those 6,000 languages, as we sit here today in Monterey, fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children. They are no longer being taught to babies. Which means, effectively, unless something changes, they’re already dead… every two weeks, some elder dies and carries with them into grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue.”

You can see variations of it across the web:

A fact came out of MIT, couple of years ago. Ken Hale, who’s a linguist, said that of the 6,000 languages spoken on Earth right now, 3,000 aren’t spoken by the children. So that in one generation, we’re going to halve our cultural diversity. He went on to say that every two weeks, an elder goes to the grave carrying the last spoken word of that culture.www.ted.com/talks/phil_borges...
One language dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. What is lost when a language goes silent?ngm.nationalgeographic.com
The general consensus is that there are between 6000 and 7000 languages currently spoken, and that between 50-90% of those will have become extinct by the year 2100.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endangered_language
It is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.www.unesco.org
At least 3,000 of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages (about 50 percent) are about to be lost.www.nsf.gov
Indeed, a widely accepted estimate is that at least 50% of the currently spoken languages in the world are endangered and likely to disappear within the 21st century.Introduction to Beliefs and Ideologies...

Variations on a theme

Sometimes the attribution goes to UNESCO, sometimes to MIT (specifically Ken Hale), or to Michael Krauss from his 1991 presentation to the Linguists Society of America. Sometimes the number of total languages is 6,000 – and sometimes 7,000. The percentage of extinction ranges between 50% and 90% – and the countdown typically ends at the end of this century (or more generally, the end of our lifetime or within a few generations). The addendum factoid is usually either a language – or an elder who is the last speaker of a language – dies every two weeks.

If we run the math in 2014, here’s what we get: 2100 – 2014 = 86 years until the end of the century. 86 years x 52 weeks = 4,472 total weeks. 4,472 / 2 = 2,236 two week periods, hence 2,236 languages dying between now and the end of the century. The difference between 2,236 and 3,000 (or 50% of 6,000) suggests a few things. Firstly, assuming we started with 6,000 languages, 764 languages have already disappeared since the original assertion was made (and it would have to have been made around 1985 for the math to work right). Secondly, if the stats are meant to be illustrative rather than accurate, we can safely leave them in the realm of folklore (along with statements like “half of all marriages end in divorce”). If we seek truth in our facts, we should probably update the stats based on current research.

It would be instructive to know the metrics behind such claims. Often times, the claims are made at the beginning of articles or blog posts about how technology or social media are saving some Indigenous language. The facts are meant to present an “establishing shot” – to paint a general picture of the current state of affairs concerning language loss in the world. But since the articles aren’t about statistical methodologies or computational linguistics, they aren’t going to delve into a detailed analysis of the claim.

Because there are several variations to the claims, a few possible sources, and some questionable mathematics to boot, I wanted to find some current statistics as well as information about how language loss is measured so that the statistics are situated within a meaningful context.

New Estimates on the Rate of Global Language Loss

In March of 2013, Karin Wiecha (who was then an intern at The Rosetta Project, an initiative of The Long Now Foundation) wrote a blog post titled New Estimates on the Rate of Global Language Loss. In it she highlights two projects (and subsequently two scales for measuring language loss): The Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) and Ethnologue.

ELCatEthnologue

The Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat)

ELCat is an academic project funded by the US National Science Foundation. It has the goal of updating and correcting status information about the endangered languages of the world. ELCat is a 3-year project begun in 2011 (download this PDF for detailed information).

Listen to “New knowledge: Findings from the Catalogue of Endangered Languages,” a 2013 presentation by Lyle Campbell, director of the ELCat project:

Highlights from the Research

The data Lyle Campbell cites in the audio piece above and in the excerpts below are based on the ELCat’s Scale of Endangerment – a rubric for assessing the status of languages.

See ELCat's Scale of Endangerment

ELCat’s Scale of Endangerment

Level of Endangerment 5 Critically Endangered 4 Severely Endangered 3 Endangered 2 Threatened 1 Vulnerable 0 Safe1
Intergenerational Transmission Few speakers, all elderly Many of the grandparent generation speaks the language. Some of child- bearing age know the language, but do not speak it to children. Most adults of child-bearing age speak the language. Most adults and some children are speakers. All community members /members of the ethnic group speak the language.
Absolute Number of Speakers 1-9 speakers 10-99 speakers 100-999 speakers 1000-9999 speakers 10,000-99,999 speakers >100,000 speakers
Speaker Number Trends A small percentage of community members or members of the ethnic group speaks the language;, the rate of language shift is very high. Fewer than half of community members or members of the ethnic group speak the language; the rate of language shift is accelerated. About half of community members or members of the ethnic group speak the language; the rate of language shift, is frequent but not rapidly accelerating. A majority of community members or members of the ethnic group speak the language; the numbers of speakers is gradually diminishing. Most community members or members of the ethnic group are speakers; speaker numbers are diminishing, but at a slow rate. Almost all community members or members of the ethnic group speak the language; speaker numbers are stable or increasing.
Domains of use of the language Used only in very few domains, (for example, restricted to ceremonies, to few specific domestic activities; a majority of speakers supports language shift; no institutional support. The language is being replaced even in the home; some speakers may values their language while the majority support language shift; very limited institutional support, if any. Used mainly just in the home; some speakers may value their language but many are indifferent or support language shift; no literacy or education programs exist for the language; Government encourages shift to the majority language; there is little few outside institutional support. Used in non- official domains; shares usage in social domains with other languages; most value their language but some are indifferent; education and literacy programs are rarely embraced by the community; government has no explicit policy regarding minority languages, though some outside institutions support the languages. Used in all domains except official ones (i.e., government and workplace); nearly all speakers value their language and are positive about using it (prestigious); education and literacy in the language is available, but only valued by some; government and other institutional support for use in non-official domains. Used in government, mass media, education and the workplace; most speakers value their language and are enthusiastic about promoting it; education and literacy in the language are valued by most community members; government and other institutions support the language for use in all domains.
[Source: http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/assets/information_catalogue_endangered_languages.pdf]

Hard evidence from the Catalogue shows that 3054 languages are currently endangered (43% of all languages), based on precise criteria. This 43% is near to the oft-cited 50% (but far from the 90% worst-case) scenario of languages expected to become extinct or doomed by the century’s end.

Of all known named languages, 634 have become extinct, 141 of these (22%) in recent times (in the last 40 years). This concrete evidence demonstrates that the rate of language extinction has become much more highly accelerated in recent times, as often claimed.

All the languages of exactly 100 families, including isolates, have become extinct, from among the world’s 420 language families –24% of linguistic diversity has been lost forever. This confirms the common claim of significant loss of language diversity.

There are 335 languages with fewer than 10 speakers (11% of all endangered languages).

The very frequently repeated claim that one language goes extinct each 2 weeks is not supported by the findings; rather, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages finds that on average only 3.5 languages become extinct per year, i.e. about 1 each 4 months, true now and for any time span during the last 40 years. Though not as dramatic as the oft-cited claim, loss of 1 language every 4 months is tragic, with its irreparable damage and loss. There is no need to continue to repeat the inaccurate claim, which ultimately could have negative repercussions for our field — the number is still shocking.

Visit the Endangered Languages website (the public portal of ELCat)

Ethnologue: Languages of the World

Ethnologue: Languages of the World is a comprehensive reference work cataloging all of the world’s known living languages. Since 1951, the Ethnologue has been an active research project involving hundreds of linguists and other researchers around the world. It is widely regarded to be the most comprehensive source of information of its kind.

Highlights from the Research

Details from the most recent edition of Ethnologue can be found in The world’s languages in crisis: A 20-year update, a 2013 paper by Gary F. Simons and M. Paul Lewis of SIL International (see excerpts below).

Ethnologue uses the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) to assess the status of languages.

See Ethnologue's EGIDS

Ethnologue’s Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS)

Level Label Description
0 International The language is widely used between nations in trade, knowledge exchange, and international policy.
1 National The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government at the national level.
2 Provincial The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government within major administrative subdivisions of a nation.
3 Wider Communication The language is used in work and mass media without official status to transcend language differences across a region.
4 Educational The language is in vigorous use, with standardization and literature being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported education.
5 Developing The language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable.
6a Vigorous The language is used for face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable.
6b Threatened The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users.
7 Shifting The child-bearing generation can use the language among themselves, but it is not being transmitted to children.
8a Moribund The only remaining active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation and older.
8b Nearly Extinct The only remaining users of the language are members of the grandparent generation or older who have little opportunity to use the language.
9 Dormant The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency.
10 Extinct The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.

How the EGIDS Works

The EGIDS is a multi-dimensional scale which focuses on different aspects of vitality at different levels. Like Fishman’s GIDS, the EGIDS, at its core, measures disruption in use. At the weakest levels of vitality, EGIDS 9 (Dormant) and EGIDS 10 (Extinct) the primary factor in focus is the function of the language as a marker of identity. If no one still associates the language with their identity, the language can be considered to be Extinct. If there is an ethnic group that associates its identity with the language but uses the language only for symbolic purposes to remind themselves of that identity, the language can be categorized as Dormant (EGIDS 9).

At EGIDS levels 6a (Vigorous), 6b (Threatened), 7 (Shifting), 8a (Moribund), and 8b (Nearly extinct) the primary factor in focus is the state of daily face-to-face use and intergenerational transmission of the language. Each successively weaker level on the scale represents the loss of use, generation by generation.

EGIDS 4 (Educational) and EGIDS 5 (Developing) bring into focus the degree to which the ongoing use of the language is supported and reinforced by the use of the language in education. This largely focuses around issues of standardization and literacy acquisition and the degree to which those are institutionally supported and have been adopted by the community of language users.

EGIDS 3 (Wider Communication) focuses primarily on the notion of vehicularity. If a language (whether written or not) is widely used by others as a second language and as a means of intergroup communication, it has greater vitality than a language with a smaller number of users and which is seen as being less useful by outsiders. Where we have data, we report the use of each language by speakers of other languages.

EGIDS 2 (Provincial) and EGIDS 1 (National) focus on the level of recognition and use given to the language by government. Beyond purely official use, however, the focus includes the widespread use of the language in media and the workplace at either the provincial (sub-national) or national levels. EGIDS 0 (International) is a category reserved for those few languages that are used as the means of communication in many countries for the purposes of diplomacy and international commerce. Because the Ethnologue organizes the language entries by country, EGIDS 1 (National) is the strongest vitality level that we report.

The EGIDS levels are hierarchical in nature. With only one exception, the scale assumes that each stronger level of vitality entails the characteristics of the levels below it. Thus, for example, a language cannot be characterized as EGIDS 5 (Developing) if it cannot also be characterized as being at EGIDS 6a (Vigorous). A language with written materials which is not used for day-to-day communication by all generations and which is not being passed on to all children cannot be categorized as EGIDS 5 (Developing). The one exception to this principle is EGIDS 3 (Wider Communication) where the vehicularity of languages of wider communication is counted as being weightier than the existence of an orthography and the use of the language in education. Some languages that are widely used for intergroup communication are not used in formal education and have no written materials. Were these languages to lose that vehicularity, they would drop directly to EGIDS 6a (Vigorous).

Source: http://www.ethnologue.com/about/language-status

Globally, 2,503 of the languages of the world are characterized by vigorous oral use. When the count for EGIDS level 6a is combined with the languages at higher, stronger levels (EGIDS 0–5), we see that 4,719 (63%) of the 7,480 languages in use in 1950 are still being passed on to the next generation in a sustainable way. In the discussion which follows, we refer to this group of languages as “vital” languages. In contrast, 1,480 (20%) of the languages of the world are “in trouble” (EGIDS 6b–7). In these languages the norm of complete intergenerational transmission is no longer in effect, but members of the child-bearing generation are still fully proficient in the language so that it would still be possible for a successful revitalization effort to restore intergenerational transmission. Finally, an additional 1,281 (17%) of languages are “dead or dying” (EGIDS 8a–10) since it is too late to restore natural parent-to-child transmission. The restoration of intergenerational transmission would require establishing overt language transmission mechanisms outside the home.

Among the dead and dying languages are 377 (5%) that have been identified as having lost all living speakers and ceasing to serve as a language of identity for an ethnic community (EGIDS 10) in the last six decades. The loss of linguistic diversity represented by the loss of these individual languages is even more staggering if viewed from the perspective of language families. Whalen & Simons (2012) show that with the loss of these languages, we have lost 15% of the linguistic stocks (the largest subgroups of related languages that are reconstructable) that had at least one living member in 1950.

Alarmingly, 2,384 (32%) living languages in the world are currently at some stage in the process of language loss (EGIDS 6b–9). That is more than the number of languages (2,216, 30%) that have experienced enough language development (EGIDS 0–5) to rise above the default stage of vigorous oral use (EGIDS 6a).

Visit the Ethnologue website

Parting shots

Following the old adage that people remember the first and and last things you tell them in a conversation, I want to repeat Lyle Campbell’s statement from above. Since the stats have been recast in the light of new research, perhaps we should avoid the old and now misleading refrains:

The very frequently repeated claim that one language goes extinct each 2 weeks is not supported by the findings; rather, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages finds that on average only 3.5 languages become extinct per year, i.e. about 1 each 4 months, true now and for any time span during the last 40 years. Though not as dramatic as the oft-cited claim, loss of 1 language every 4 months is tragic, with its irreparable damage and loss. There is no need to continue to repeat the inaccurate claim, which ultimately could have negative repercussions for our field — the number is still shocking

The Ethnos Project was a research initiative (2008-2018) that explored the intersection of Indigeneity and information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as:

  • open source databases for Indigenous Knowledge management
  • information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) initiatives
  • new and emerging technologies for intangible cultural heritage
  • social media used by Indigenous communities for social change
  • mobile technologies used for language preservation

RSS Ethnos Project Papers