Endangered Languages

Why care about endangered languages?

By Michael Cahill, Ph.D.

"If I learn to write well, my language will never disappear."
Machiguenga man at a writer's workshop in Peru

Of the more than 6,900 languages in the world, half may be in danger of disappearing in the next several decades. In some areas, a language community has been so ravaged by warfare or disease that the entire group is dying out. Other languages are dying because parents are teaching their children English or French or Spanish for economic reasons. Whatever the cause, these are endangered languages, much as the black rhinoceros is endangered. But a language is invisible, more intangible than a rhino. Wouldn't the world be simpler if there were fewer languages? Why care if these die out?

SIL cares because a people's identity and culture are intimately tied to their language. Some years ago, Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, SIL's first president, asked a Danish linguist why all Danes didn't give up Danish and switch to English. The first response was, "It's a good thing you asked a friend that!" Pike pressed him, saying, "I don't want to insult you, but I've spent my life helping minority languages of the world. People want to know if it's worth it." The man replied, "Well, Pike, if you lose your language, you've lost your moral substance. Your language is…you."

Each language is uniquely rich. In English, "letting the cat out of the bag" is an idiom meaning telling something that is supposed to be a secret. A word-for-word translation into any other language doesn't communicate at all. Likewise, the Spanish "dar gato por liebre" literally means, "to give a cat for a rabbit." But as an idiom, it means to deceive someone else about the quality of something. Each language has unique idioms, vocabulary and expressions of worldview.

Finally, one task of modern linguistics is to seek generalizations about how languages work. In the 1970s it was thought impossible that a language would normally put an object at the beginning of a sentence, as in "Boy dog bit," meaning "The dog bit the boy." But an SIL linguist found such a pattern in an endangered language. Generalizations about language are a key to how the human mind works, and endangered languages contribute to our scientific knowledge.

SIL's philosophy and work on endangered languages

Many of the languages SIL works with are considered endangered on the basis of size alone. However, a foundational philosophy of the organization is "no language is too small." SIL has worked in languages of fewer than 100 speakers. At the time, those languages looked like they were dying, but today are thriving. SIL has also documented vocabulary and grammar for languages that had no hope of surviving after the last one or two living speakers died. Also, the Ethnologue, published by SIL, is a leading source of information on languages of the world, including endangered ones.

Language and human dignity are inherently linked. Respecting all peoples, languages and cultures, SIL is dedicated to helping people all over the world preserve their languages and identities.


Dr. Michael Cahill is SIL International Linguistics Coordinator and was a member of the Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation of the Linguistic Society of America from 2001–2003, chairing it in 2003.