It’s estimated that around every two weeks, one human language dies. This is almost as startling as the mass extinction of animals worldwide… Or is it? What are we losing, if a rarely spoke language is gone forever? Languages have never ceased to change and evolve throughout human history, along with society, art and methods of communication.
Some linguists maintain, however, that each language contains within it the ability to express unique worldviews and concepts. By this logic, when a language dies then some otherwise inarticulable concepts could die with it.
In this sense the loss of a language is, then, almost as if a species is dying out – and little-spoken languages are endangered. This is why researchers and governments try and preserve ancient languages around the world, believing that some irreplaceable part of a culture is lost with each extinct language.
The languages in this list are all in various stages of decline and endangerment. There are many more, thousands in fact, that are facing the same fate right now. Below is just a snapshot of the very worst cases. These languages can only truly be saved and preserved if the few remaining speakers take responsibility for passing them on.
12: Anindilyakwa: 2000 Native Speakers
These speakers refer to themselves by the name of their language, Anindilyakwa, and reside on Groote Eylandt in northeastern Australia. Groote Eylandt archipelago is around 640 km south east of Darwin. The Warnindilyakwa people own this archipelago and have done so for thousands of years. Now, their language and traditional way of life is under threat as only 2000 native Anindilyakwa speakers remain.
There are schools in the area which teach the traditional language and culture – as pictured above – but it may not be enough to save the language from extinction. When elders who grew up as native speakers begin to die, much of the language and culture is lost with them.
11. North Greenlandic: 1000 Native Speakers
With an already tiny national population, the North Greenlandic language only has around 1000 speakers left. The other Greenlandic languages are faring better. North Greenlandic has many similarities to Inuktitut, which is an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in Canada. It is not, however, as similar to other Greenlandic languages. Because of its unique place in the country, it is especially needing of preservation. The language is spoken in Northern Greenland.
10: Taos: 800 Native Speakers
Taos, spoken in Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, currently survives through just 800 speakers. It’s a language which has traditionally been closely guarded: Linguist George Leonard Trager, who studied the language, cited speakers’ reluctance to share details of the language – so it is has become increasingly hard to preserve it.
Most Taos speakers are bilingual Spanish speakers, and so the younger generation, in an increasingly globalised world, are more likely to employ this much more common language for the sake of utility.
9. Amahuaca: 500 Native Speakers
Amahuaca is an indigenous language from South America that has very few speakers left, and as the language dies so too does a strong cultural tradition.
This language is spread out, appearing in Peru as well as Brazil. Yet, it’s currently only spoken by around 500 people or fewer. Problems of preservation abound; it’s not officially taught in any schools currently, and the diffusion of the language means a single strong community that might keep it alive for longer is lacking.
8. Seneca: 100 Native Speakers
The Seneca people speak this language, but it is in very real danger of dying out. The Seneca tribe is one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and spans from the US into Canada. With very few members of the younger generation speaking the language, however, preservation efforts are in motion; there’s currently a push for elder Seneca people to teach the language to the younger members of the tribe.
7. Bella Coola: 50 Native Speakers
Bella Coola, a language spoken in British Columbia, Canada, only has around 50 speakers left. Also known as Nuxalk, the language is only spoken by a mere 20 elders at this point. But not all is yet lost: There are schools for this language appearing in the province, and it can be used as a second language for entry into BC schools.
6. Bom: 20 Native Speakers
Another dying language is spoken in Sierra Leone, by a current estimated population of just 20 of the country’s 5.7 million inhabitants. Currently, the language is all but disappearing. No one under 50 speaks it now and as such, there is very little chance of the language surviving into the next generations. Moreover, very little is being done to preserve the language, as the majority of the country use the more widely spoken Mel languages.
5. Onondaga (New York): 10 Native Speakers
Another tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, there are only 10 speakers of the Onondaga language remaining. The Onondaga people are originally from New York state. Their language has slowly been dying out ever since European contact and settlement.
As with the other languages of the Iroquois Confederacy, this was spoken in Canada and the US but it is now mostly located on the reserve in New York. Children are no longer learning the language, so many consider it to be all but extinct.
4. Abaga: 5 Native Speakers
Very little has been written about the Abaga language, and its mystery makes it all the harder to preserve. It is spoken in only one small part of the world, as shown above, and is now almost extinct. Indeed, it is officially listed as a nearly extinct language. Those who do still speak it are located in Papua New Guinea, although there are only an estimated 5 of them left.
3. Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache (Oklahoma): 3 Native Speakers
Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache is a family of languages that is spoken in Oklahoma and New Mexico. The Oklahoma language is in dire need of assistance; while most Indigenous languages in North America are in danger of extinction, this one has as few as three native speakers remaining. There are efforts to teach the language in schools, and the culture is still very much alive, but it may be too little too late for the language at this point.
2. Spokane: 2 Native Speakers
Sadly, the Spokane language is under threat of extinction. This language is part of the Spokane-Kalispel branch (there are various dialects) and has only 2 fluent speakers left. This language has no clear relation to any other language in the world and as such is incredibly unique. It is both beautiful and culturally significant to the area.
The other dialects of the language have only 60 or so native speakers remaining. This means that the language must be taught by these native speakers to the younger generation before it’s lost forever.
1. Uru: 1 Native Speaker Remains
Since the Uru language, spoken in the Ingavi Province of Bolivia, has only one fluent speaker remaining, there is little hope for its revival. Like thousands of languages before it, it may become extinct forever, causing the loss of a piece of historic culture.
Also known as the Iru-Iru language, it is the only remaining language of the Uros people. If it is lost, a whole ancient culture will also disappear.
This is not the only language with one speaker remaining. In fact, there are hundreds worldwide. Hence, so many languages are becoming extinct each and every week. More effort must be put into preserving these unique languages, or the history of each culture could be lost forever.