See Text Menu

Global Language Viability

Causes, Symptoms and Cures for Endangered Languages

By Barbara F. Grimes, Ethnologue Editor 1971-2000


1. Introduction

Of the 6,809 languages currently listed in the database of the Ethnologue: Languages of the World 330 languages each have one million speakers or more. This large size population contrasts sharply with the approximately 450 languages that are so small that they are in the last stages of becoming extinct, with only a few elderly speakers left in each one. At the same time, it may surprise many people to find out that the median size language in the world is 6,000 speakers; that is, half the languages in the world are spoken by 6,000 or more people, and half are spoken by 6,000 or fewer people.

2. Importance of Preserving Endangered Languages

2.1 Prevent loss of culture/way of life

What does it matter if languages become extinct? Many people are alarmed when a plant or animal species becomes extinct. A language dying hits even closer to us; it means that a unique creation of human beings is gone from the world. Each language has grown up with its society, and is an expression of the facets of that society's culture. Each is an intricate system of words, phrases, clauses, and discourse patterns showing contrasts and agreements that its speakers use to describe their world and the customs they use in relating to each other. They use the language to tell their stories, recount their past, express their plans for the future, recite their poetry, and pass on their way of life.

2.2 Prevent loss of information about plants and wildlife

For example, when my husband, Joseph E. Grimes, was studying the plants and animals known to the Huichol people of Mexico, the Huichol were able to describe to him in their language many different plants and animals which they knew, including some animals for which the reference books did not give much information, like the jaguarundi.[1] The Huichol told him what it looked like at different times of the year, what its habits were, and what it ate. They also told how they know if a carcass they find on the trail has been killed by a jaguar or a mountain lion. If he had not understood the Huichol language, there is no way they could have told him all that, because their Spanish was too limited to express it. These treasure troves of information are lost each time a language dies.

2.3 Preserve a people’s identity

Many peoples feel that their language expresses their identity. A Russian linguist friend of ours, who was expelled from the USSR for political reasons in 1977, lamented to us that he could no longer write in Russian, his mother tongue, in which he had worked hard to be able to write well. His specialty was Russian lexicology, but he was more limited in expressing himself well in English or French, which were now his only two options.

3. Causes of language shift

3.1 Parents push children to learn prestige language thinking that they can only learn one language well

Linguists are aware that a language becoming extinct does not necessarily mean that the people who spoke it have all died. Instead, the speakers may shift to a different language, over one or more generations. Sometimes parents decide to not speak their mother tongue to their children, because they perceive an economic or educational advantage for their children in talking a second language. They do not want their children to suffer from not speaking that language well, as they did. And they mistakenly think that children can learn to speak only one language well. That is not true. Children can learn several languages well, as long as they know when to speak each one. Childhood is the best time to learn languages well.

3.2 Natural or man-made disaster—sudden shift

However, it does occasionally happen that a drought, famine, disease, war, flood, earthquake, tsunami, volcano eruption, acts of genocide, or other catastrophe wipes out a people. For example, the Paulohi language speakers in Maluku, Indonesia, experienced a severe earthquake and tsunami several years ago which killed all but about 50 of them.[2]

3.3 Migration outside of traditional territory—planned shift

Sociolinguists have found various other factors that seem to correlate with a language group shifting its language and diminishing in size. Voluntary or forced migration to a location outside their traditional territory has been a cause, as with Native American and Siberian peoples. The Naka'ela in Maluku, Indonesia, reportedly decreased in number after moving down from the mountains to a coastal town on Seram Island.[3]

Other language groups moving into a language's traditional territory has been a cause of loss, as with the Hawaiian people, who are now only about 20% of the total population in their traditional territory.[4]

The United States, Russian, and Canadian governments have moved indigenous children into boarding schools, insisting that they speak only the national languages in those schools. This resulted in those children being cut off from their traditional ethnic language and culture.

3.4 Use of second language in school—causing widespread shift

The language used in school for teaching can influence first or second language shift, as in the Philippines, where people educated before 1972 can speak English as a second language in addition to their home language, while people educated after 1972, when the language used for instruction changed to Tagalog, are more often fluent in Tagalog as a second language than in English. Some people now use Tagalog as their primary language who are not ethnically Tagalog.

3.5 National language policy—causing some but not universal shift

The desire to build a nation by a people and their government has contributed to language shift in the United States and Israel. When Tanzania became independent, the leaders decided to make Swahili their national language. For many years they limited linguistic investigation and promotion to Swahili. Many individuals became more bilingual in Swahili than they had been previously, and some now use Swahili as their primary language. But many people in the ethnic groups still speak their traditional languages as their primary language.

3.6 Factors working against language shift

People all over the world usually prefer their mother tongue over their second language because not only are they more fluent in it, but they speak it with the people they are closest to, and feel an affection for that language.

3.7 Other factors causing language shift

Urbanization, industrialization, other economic changes, government changes, and small population of the language being shifted from, have also been factors accompanying language shift. Because of the dynamic nature of these situations and other internal cultural factors, it has not been possible to predict language shift ahead of time for entire ethnic groups from any combination of these factors.

4. Effects of language shift (loss of mother tongue)

4.1 Dismay

The effect of these pressures and changes on the societies in question has been difficult and varied. My son, Charles Grimes, got together the last three speakers of the Kayeli language of Maluku, Indonesia, who were all over 60 years old, so he could take a word list in that language.[5] When he asked for certain words, none of the three speakers could remember them. Gradually a look of horror came over their faces as they realized that those words were lost forever. They pleaded with him to help them recover their language, but unfortunately he could only write down the words that they remembered.

4.2 Anti-social behavior & loss of self-esteem

Some people have said that they do not want to bring children into a world where their society, language, and people have no place. Some have turned to negative behavior like alcoholism, drugs, crime, or killing. The Waorani in Ecuador,[6] the Carabayo in Colombia,[7] and other groups in South America turned to killing, and for that reason some groups have still not had peaceful contact with the outside world. Or some have hidden from cultural pressures as have the Huichol in Mexico, who have moved farther back into the mountains. Or they have put up cultural barriers to make sure they do not accept any further innovations as the Cora in Mexico, who have appointed officials to keep innovations out. The Otomí of the Mezquital Valley in Mexico have acquired an inferiority complex about their culture and language through contact with the outside world (the Pan American Highway goes right through their territory). Many Otomí have turned to alcohol as an escape. Even something as simple as wearing dark glasses has been pointed to by anthropologists as a sign of looking for extra moral support by the Arapaho of the United States.

5. Symptoms of impending extinction of a language

For many of the 450 languages in the last stages of becoming extinct, the Ethnologue mainly has the information that they have a few elderly speakers left. But for others there is some additional information.

5.1 Drastic reduction of number of speakers

5.1.1 Resulting in loss of aspects of culture

Students of languages and cultures in decline have noted that certain social, political, or religious functions of those societies must cease when there are not enough people left to handle them. Young people of marriageable age also have to look for mates outside their own group, and that presents the additional problem of what language to pass on to their children.

5.1.2 Depending on how the group makes a living

Hunter-gatherer groups ordinarily function well in small bands, but farming and pastoral societies do not. The Qawásqar are a small fishing band from southern Chile, 20 people, four of whom are monolingual. Reports are that the other Qawásqar are not very bilingual in Spanish. The youngest members are 3 to 20 years old. It is not clear how they can continue to function virtually monolingually unless they are able to maintain their livelihood and still keep to themselves, but they have made efforts to keep themselves physically isolated.[8]

5.1.3 Examples of nearly extinct languages in Australia

The Djingili in Australia have ten fluent elderly speakers of the language left, who use Kriol, an English-based creole of wider communication in Australia, as a second language.[9] The Gugubera in Australia have 15 fluent speakers left of their traditional language out of 50 members in the ethnic group, but the English of the ethnic group is poor.[10] The Guguyimidjir in Australia have twenty to thirty fluent speakers left out of 400 people in the ethnic group. There are 200 to 300 people in the ethnic group- who understand Guguyimidjir, but prefer Aboriginal English, including children.[11]

5.2 Reduced domain in which language is used

Speakers of endangered languages may not have many people to use their own language with, so they use it with only family and close friends and possibly for ceremonies, as the Huilliche of Chile do.[12] The Hukumina language of Maluku, Indonesia had only one speaker left in 1989 who was eighty years old then. She could remember phrases and sentences, but had had no one to talk the language with for two decades.[13] Bardi children and adolescents in Australia seem to understand Bardi, but never speak it.[14] The Eastern Ojibwa of Canada speak other varieties of Ojibwa to other Ojibwa people, and English with people who are not Ojibwa.[15] Some Australian Aborigines speak Kriol with other Aborigines, and English with other Australians. The Tlingit of Alaska and Canada all speak English as their first or second language. The youngest speakers of Tlingit are 60 to 65 years of age.[16]

5.3 Abandonment of mother tongue by young people

The Ili Turki language of China was just discovered by linguists in 1956. There are about 30 households of speakers, mainly older people. Younger people are intermarrying with people from other language groups; the group as a whole has gone over to Mandarin.[17]

The Manchu were once the rulers of China. Now there are 1,821,000 left in the ethnic group. But there are only an estimated 20 to 70 speakers left, all over 70 years old.[18]

The Mapia language in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, is a Micronesian language linguistically, 180 miles north of the main coast of Irian Jaya. There is only one speaker left, who is elderly, and he still lives on Mapia Island. The rest of the ethnic group have moved to Micronesia, and speak another language.[19]

5.4 Attempts to maintain ethnic identity without using the mother tongue

The Itzá of Guatemala and Belize, have only 12 speakers left, but they maintain their culture even though most of them now speak Spanish. However, it is not easy to fit a culture to a different language, and some features of the language are invariably lost when that is done.[20]

The Tariano people of the remote Vaupés River region of Colombia maintain their ethnic identity, but have no one left who speaks the language. However, across the border in Brazil, in the Vaupés River area of that country, linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald found 100 elderly speakers of Tariano, an Arawakan language, in 1996. There are 1,882 people in the ethnic group in both countries; those who do not speak Tariano speak Tucano, a Tucanoan language, or Nhengatú, a Tupí language, both languages of wider communication.[21]

The Amahuaca people of Peru and Brazil speak a Panoan language. There are 300 in Peru and 220 in Brazil, but no children are learning the language. The group is disintegrating and losing its ethnic identity. Only 10% of the ethnic group can speak Spanish fairly well. Some speak only Spanish.[22]

The Akurió people of Suriname are a hunter-gatherer people who speak a Carib language, and were just discovered by the outside world in 1969. For thirty years they had hidden in the tropical forest, and their warm campfires were occasionally found by other indigenous people. All but one group now live with the Trió people, who speak a different Carib language. Akurio children now speak only the Trió language. The Trió respect the Akurió for their knowledge of the forest, but look down on them and their language. There were 44 or 45 Akurió in 1998.[23]

The Arikara of the United States are reported to be one of the groups the well-known American explorers Lewis and Clark met in 1804 in North Dakota. At one time they had 30,000 people, but they were reduced to 6,000 because of smallpox. They now have only 90 speakers who are all middle-aged or older out of an ethnic population of 1,000. They have published instructional materials in the Arikara language, hoping that others in the ethnic group will learn the language.[24]

The Angosturas Tunebo of Colombia is a very small and endangered group. Some people think their speech is only a dialect of the Tunebo language because of the name, but it is actually a separate language related to the other Tunebo. Speakers of the four Tunebo languages have only limited understanding of each other's speech.[25]

5.5 Example of dialects of a language becoming extinct

A language variety becoming extinct is no less important just because it is a dialect of a larger language. There are cases where a dialect of a language is endangered, or has even become extinct, while other dialects remain viable. A dialect still needs linguistic description, and its speakers need literacy and other help.

5.6 Last speakers no longer know their own language very well

When languages are becoming extinct, the last few speakers sometimes do not speak the language well. They may simplify the grammar, change it to be more like their second language, or not know or use certain vocabulary.

5.7 Creole may develop if people from different languages come together

They also may speak their second language in a limited way. If they decide to speak their second language to their children when they speak it in a limited way, the children may end up not speaking any language like other native speakers. If an entire language group is like that, as on a plantation or in another situation where people from different language backgrounds are brought together suddenly and must communicate with each other, a new language like a pidgin, creole, or mixed language may develop.

5.8 Examples of endangered creole languages around the world

Among languages which are becoming extinct are different kinds of languages, like Chinook Wawa, a pidgin language in Canada and the United States. It is made up of words from Chinook, Nootka, Canadian French, and English.[26] There are endangered creole languages, like San Miguel Creole French of Panama, which has Spanish influences.[27] Unserdeutsch is an endangered German based creole from Papua New Guinea.[28] Palenquero is an endangered Spanish based creole of Colombia whose speakers are mainly older, although 10% of those under 25 can speak it.[29] There are endangered mixed languages like Mednyj Aleut, a Russian-Aleut language from Russia which is assimilating rapidly into Russian,[30] and Nguluwan, a Yapese-Ulithi language of Micronesia, which is assimilating rapidly into Yapese, according to linguist Osamu Sakiyama.[31]

5.9 Examples of endangered sign languages

There are endangered deaf sign languages like Maritime Sign Language from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island of Canada.[32] Rennellese Sign Language from the Solomon Islands was invented by the first known deaf person from Rennell Island in 1915, and learned by all the 3,570 hearing people from there so they could talk to him.[33] The so-called "Hawaii Pidgin" Sign Language came to light when a deaf person in Hawaii was involved in a traffic accident, and the court had to arrange a series of translators to interpret testimonies in court between that sign language, American Sign Language, and English. Providencia Sign Language of Providencia Island in the Caribbean is used by 19 deaf people and 2,500 to 3,000 hearing people. The deaf are fully integrated into that society. Since deafness is hereditary there, that sign language may actually not be endangered.[34]

6. Stages of language endangerment

At a colloquium in Germany in February 2000,[35] linguists distinguished the following stages of language endangerment:

  1. Critically endangered. Very few speakers all 70 years old and older, great-grandparent age.
  2. Severely endangered. Speakers are only 40 years old and older, grandparent age.
  3. Endangered. Speakers are only 20 years old and older, parent age.
  4. Eroding. Speakers are some children and older people. Other children do not speak it.
  5. Stable but threatened. All children and older people are speakers, but few in number.
  6. Safe. Not endangered. Language expected to be learned by all children and all others in the ethnic group.

7. Information needed on endangered languages: number of speakers compared to total number in ethnic group

It is important for us to have accurate information about each situation. Linguists have said that some of the most important information we need about each language is to know how many speakers are left, compared to how many people are in the ethnic group.

7.1 Reasons for difficulty in getting accurate estimates

I know how difficult it has been to get accurate estimates for the two languages where I have lived and worked for extended periods: Huichol of Mexico, and Hawaii Creole English of Hawaii.

7.1.1 Isolation due to lack of access to area

The Huichol live scattered out over a 50-mile by 50-mile area of very rugged mountains, in small family groups.[36] There have been no roads into the area until recently, only animal and foot trails, and a few airstrips.

7.1.2 Fear of outsiders leading to misinformation

The Huichol people do not give their correct names to strangers, because they believe that strangers will use those names to open them up to sorcery, causing them to have failing corn crops, get sick, or die. So they give false names to census takers and medical investigators. In addition, census takers and others do not necessarily get out to all the remote corners of the mountains where there is a house or two; the Huichol do not live in villages. When we began working there in 1952, estimates were of 7,000 or 8,000 Huichol. Later a school teacher who worked for the census bureau and was half Huichol himself estimated 12,000 speakers. I have since heard estimates of 20,000 and 51,000.

7.1.3 Language not considered worth spending money on

For the Hawaii Creole English language, Ian Hancock and Michael Forman, specialists in creole languages, have both estimated half the people in Hawaii to speak it, or 600,000, scattered out over the whole state.[37] But no one has ever done an accurate survey. At least twice the state legislature has requested one to be done, first of the Department of Health, and later of the Department of Education in 1989, but it was not done either time, probably because of lack of funding due to the low prestige of the language. People do not necessarily admit to speaking it because they are often laughed at, and accused of not speaking "proper English." So we stick with the estimates given by the creolists, which match our observations.

7.2 Keys to gathering accurate information

7.2.1 Spending enough time with people to observe their behavior

Other things linguists would like to know are if parents are passing on their mother tongue to their children, and if a second language is now used mainly for certain areas of life among its speakers, such as for home, school, government, religion, occupation, or commerce. If a linguist knows a language and has lived among its people, he or she is likely to have a much more accurate judgment about these things. The speakers are more likely to trust him and carry on their normal behavior when he is around. He can check what they tell him by observing what areas of life they use which language in, and what language they speak to their children. It is not easy to find out these things on a short stay, because the investigator cannot study causes, attitudes, cultural factors, or gain people's confidence in that short time.

7.2.2 Understanding the language used to describe the local language

Sueyoshi Toba of SIL reported to me that he recently was able to study all the reports that had been done on the Raute language of Nepal, including everything written in the Nepali language; but his report would have been much more incomplete if he had not understood the Nepali language.

7.2.3 Doublecheck census reports

One of the problems with the 1990 census of the USA was that Native Americans often reported that they spoke the language of their ancestors because they were of that ethnic group, even when they actually spoke only a few words or phrases of the language, or none of it. The same thing apparently happened in the 1990 census of Mexico, where an extinct language like Ópata, whose last speakers were previously reported to have died in 1930, was reported in the 1990 census to have a few speakers.[38] There are also remote languages like Yamana of Chile which is reported to possibly have more speakers out there somewhere,[39] and there are as yet uncontacted groups like the Pisabo in Peru,[40] and the Nukak Makú[41] and Yarí[42] of Colombia for which we have no speaker estimate.

7.3 Reasons it is important to have accurate information

It is important to have accurate information, because if we claim that a language is not endangered when it is, those people and their language can miss the opportunity for linguistic and literacy help and description. If we claim that a language is endangered when it isn't, then we lose our credibility, and cause people to lose interest in helping.

7.4 Need for in-depth studies of endangered languages

In cases where there are disagreements about language endangerment, it is important for there to be additional in-depth investigation by linguists, to find out what is accurate. I present the following information to show the need for more in-depth investigation, and also to illustrate some of the reasons why it is difficult to get accurate reports.

7.5 Examples of cases of misinformation balanced by more accurate reports

One preliminary endangered languages report says that the Lacandón in southern Mexico, a Mayan language, have no speakers younger than 30 years old. However, Mary Baer of SIL, who has lived among them since 1942 and speaks their language, says there are currently nearly 1,000 speakers of all ages who talk to her in Lacandón. That is the entire ethnic group.

7.5.1 Decline may not mean death if proper measures are taken in time

The preliminary report says there are no Mayo language speakers younger than 40 years old. This is a Uto-Aztecan group of northern Mexico. But Larry Hagberg of SIL, who has lived among them for years and speaks their language, says there are over 100 Mayo villages, and native speakers report that half a dozen of the villages have speakers under 40 years old. He has met many fluent speakers under 40, and agrees with the 1995 census figure giving 40,000 Mayo who still use the language in the home, including a few children. Hagberg says the Mayo people are very shy, particularly concerning their own identity as Mayo. The more monolingual people tend to avoid contact with outsiders. Those who are bilingual often deny any knowledge of the Mayo language when asked by an outsider if they speak Mayo. He thinks the language may be used more vigorously now than when he first arrived there, because the government is doing things to stimulate pride in their ethnic heritage, like giving generous scholarships to Mayo young people who can demonstrate a certain degree of proficiency in the language. There is also a radio station that broadcasts in Mayo.

7.5.2 Bilingualism may not lead to extinction of the mother tongue

A preliminary endangered language report for Guatemala says the Lanquin Q'eqchi' children are abandoning their language. However, Francis Eachus of SIL, who has lived there since 1955 and speaks the language, says all the people and their children there speak the language, even though they are bilingual in Spanish. Bilingualism does not necessarily lead to language loss.

7.6 Other cases where reportedly endangered language are surviving

7.6.1 In Guatemala

Uspanteko is on the preliminary list for Guatemala as having the children abandoning it, but Stan McMillen of SIL, who has lived there for years and speaks the language, says there are 3,000 speakers, and children in their main center of Las Pacayas speak the language. The language will be broadcast over the radio soon, and the Mayan Academy is actively promoting the use of the language.

Sipakapense is on the preliminary list for Guatemala as small, but Ed Beach and Eric Kindberg of SIL recently found 8,000 speakers who maintain the use of Sipakapense, out of over 12,000 in the ethnic group, and many children actively using the language. There is a strong sense of identity with and ownership of Sipakapense. Most people did not learn to speak Spanish until they began attending school, and they still understand Sipakapense better than Spanish.

Tekiteko is on the preliminary list for Guatemala as small, but it has 1,000 to 1,500 speakers, according to Ed Beach, who has lived there since 1978 and speaks the language. He says the larger estimates of 5,000 given 20 years ago were not accurate, but the size was 1,000 to 1,500 at that time and that size has been maintained. There is a resurgence in use of the language. In the largest villages Tekiteko is used commonly by children, but in some other villages, parents push their children to speak only Spanish.

Cunen K'iche' is on the preliminary list for Guatemala as small, but it has 9,000 speakers, according to Larry Marhenke who has lived there since 1991. This includes 2,000 who live in Guatemala City but maintain ties in the villages. Over 90% of the people regularly speak their language. A few children are not being taught the language, but most children can be heard playing in it. It is the dominant language heard in the local market. There is also a significant degree of monolingualism among men and women in the countryside.

7.6.2 In Peru

A preliminary report on endangered languages of Peru lists Cajamarca Quechua with 10,000 speakers. David Coombs of SIL, who has lived there for 19 years and speaks the language, says that he tried to get an accurate estimate when doing his dissertation research in the late 1970s, but the very low prestige of the language and the fairly high level of bilingualism in Spanish made that impossible. For example, a few young male bilinguals told him and government census takers that only a few very old people still spoke Quechua, even though their own female family members later proved to be monolingual Quechua speakers, including young women. Coombs estimates that 30,000 to 35,000 people living in at least 28 villages and hamlets speak Quechua. But he says the pressure on Quechua is severe, and the language is relatively strong in only 8 to 10 communities. Very young children in some areas are still learning it.

The preliminary endangered languages report on Peru lists 350 to 450 Sharanahua. Eugene Scott of SIL has lived there since 1958, and speaks the language. He estimates the population is closer to 450 to 500, plus others in Brazil who go by other names. Those in Peru speak Sharanahua exclusively in their homes.

The preliminary endangered languages report on Peru lists 890 to 2,500 Matsés. Harriet Kneeland and Harriet Fields of SIL have lived there since 1969, speak the language, and say there are 2,500 to 3,000 in Peru and Brazil, nearly all of whom speak Matsés. On the Peru side the school teachers are bilingual Matsés speakers. Some Matsés speak Spanish or Portuguese as second language.

7.6.3 In the Philippines

A preliminary report on endangered languages of the Philippines lists the Central Cagayan Agta language as having 500 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, and a few children. The second language is used for all important functions except perhaps family, the people are mildly supportive toward their language, and the language is endangered according to the report. However, Roy Mayfield of SIL, who has lived there since 1959 and speaks the language, says there are 700 to 800 speakers, who represent 95% of the ethnic group, and all or most of the children. Speakers use Agta with all Agta people and even with some Ilocano, Itawit, and Ibanag people who have learned Agta. They use Ilocano with all other people who are not Agta. Though government has decreed that Tagalog is to be used in education, the Agta are strongly supportive of their own language, and there is a strong identity of the Agta people with the Agta language.

7.6.4 In Indonesia
Irian Jaya

A preliminary report on the endangered languages of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, lists Auye as having 300 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, and a few children still speaking the language. It reports that the second language is being used in all areas of life except perhaps the family circle, that the speakers have a neutral attitude toward their language, and it is potentially endangered. However, Mike Moxness of SIL, who has lived there and speaks the language, says Auye should not be on the endangered list. Linguists are still contacting part of the Auye group, but they have contacted 350 of them so far, and he doesn't know any person, including children, who does not speak the language. Most of the speakers do not know Indonesian.

The Foya or Abinomn language of Irian Jaya was also on the preliminary endangered languages list as having possibly 20 speakers, which represents 30% or less of the ethnic group, and no children that speak the language. It was reported to have all areas of life handled in the second language, except perhaps the family, negative or neutral attitudes toward their language, and being potentially endangered. However, Mark Donohue of the University of Sydney has done field work there, and he says there are 300 speakers. They have a low level of schooling, but are enthusiastic about literacy, want their own dictionary, and want to write stories in their language.

The Tobati or Yotafa language of Irian Jaya was on one preliminary endangered language list as having 2,460 speakers and being endangered. But it was on another preliminary endangered language list as having 100 speakers, and being seriously endangered. Donohue says there are 350 speakers.

The Yoke or Yoki language of Irian Jaya was on one preliminary endangered language list as having possibly 20 speakers, who represent 20% to 60% of the ethnic group, and none or a few children as speakers. It was reported that the second language is used for all areas of life except perhaps the family, and that the people have a negative or neutral attitude toward their language, and that it is seriously endangered. However, Donohue says there are 200 speakers of all ages, language use is vigorous, and the people know hardly any Indonesian. They know some Warembori, a nearby language, but the Warembori people know even more of the Yoke language.

Kowiai of Irian Jaya was on one preliminary endangered language list with 500 speakers, who represent 40% to 100% of the ethnic group, and a few to half the children. It was reported that the second language was used for all or most areas of life, people had a neutral attitude toward their language, and it was potentially endangered. However, Roland Walker of SIL who lived among them for several years says there are 600 people, nearly all of whom speak the language, including children. The second language is being used for few or no areas of life, and the people strongly support their language.


A preliminary endangered languages report on Sulawesi, Indonesia, lists Panasuan as having 800 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, and 30% to 50% of the children. Panasuan is reported to be used for some important areas of life, the people are reported to be neutral toward using their language, and it is potentially endangered. However, Sem, a man from Kalumpang, recently visited there, where he has friends, and he says there are 900 or more speakers, all the ethnic group including children speak the language, the second language isn't dominant in any areas of life, and the people are strongly supportive toward their language.

The Talondo' language of Sulawesi was also on the preliminary list, with 400 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, and a few to half the children. The second language was reported to be used for all areas of life except perhaps the family, people were reported to be neutral toward their language, and it was potentially endangered. However, Sem, the man from Kalumpang, has also recently visited the Talondo' people, where he also has friends. He says there are 500 speakers, all the ethnic group speaks the language, including most children. Very small children know only Talondo'. They use Talondo' in the home, for sports, and children playing. Indonesian is used for trading, because the sellers are Bugis people. They use Kalumpang with the Kalumpang people. School teachers are not Talondo', so Talondo' is not used in school.

The Napu language of Sulawesi was also on the preliminary list, with 4,000 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, 30% to 50% of the children. The second language was reported to be used for most of the important areas of life, people were reported to be neutral toward their language, and it was potentially endangered. However, Roger Hanna of SIL has lived there for over 10 years, and says the 2000 census information gives 6,000 speakers, the percentage of children who speak the language is over 60%, Napu is used for some key roles in life. He says Napu people are at least mildly supportive of their language. Interest in Napu literature is high.

7.6.5 In Papua New Guinea

For Papua New Guinea, one preliminary report on endangered languages listed Mussau-Emira with 3,650 speakers, and says it is potentially endangered. Another report says there are 3,500 speakers, 40% to 60% of the ethnic group speak the language, including a few children. It reports that the second language is used for most of the important areas of life, people are negative or neutral toward their language, and it is endangered. However, John Brownie of SIL, who lives there, says he estimates the speakers as 3,500 to 5,000; a new census was taken last July but the report is not out yet. He says of the 3,500 resident population, virtually everyone is a speaker of the language, including children, but for a large group outside the traditional area in Kavieng town, it is probably not universal. He said there was a period when people were using more Tok Pisin, their second language, with children, but that is past, and people are now passing on their language to their children. He says the language is very healthy, and it is being used for all the key roles in the villages. He says the success of elementary schools in the local languages in Papua New Guinea in the last five years has reinforced positive attitudes, and he does not see anyone with negative attitudes.

One preliminary endangered language list for Papua New Guinea lists Kakabai with 880 speakers. However, Russ Cooper of SIL says population estimates varying from 700 to 1100 are given, but the situation is confusing because the people move their entire villages, sometimes to a different census area or government council jurisdiction. Anyone school age or older seems to have some fluency in at least three languages, and the average is five languages. But Kakabai is the language that keeps the group's culture and identity together.

On the other hand, Gweda or Garuwahi is a language of Papua New Guinea on one preliminary list given with 225 speakers, and on another preliminary report with 200 speakers, but Russ Cooper says it was found on a recent survey to have only members of one family, fewer than 30 to 40 people, including an older couple whose children and grandchildren are the only ones who speak Gweda with them. The rest of the ethnic group speak Taupota or Tawala.

Wataluma was on one preliminary Papua New Guinea list as having 190 speakers, who represent 70% to 100% of the ethnic group, and 60% to 100% of the children. Wataluma was used for some or most important functions, the people were mildly supportive toward their language, and it was potentially endangered. Russ Cooper says he talked at length with a village headmaster from Wataluma who feels it is a viable language. Cooper has heard other Papua New Guineans also make the claim that Wataluma is alive and well, though a very small group.

Magori was on a preliminary Papua New Guinea list as endangered with 200 speakers, who represent 40% to 60% of the ethnic group, and a few to half the children. The second language was reported to be used for all important functions, the people were negative to neutral about Magori. Russ Cooper has heard others from Papua New Guinea make the claim that Magori is not endangered. He says, if Magori is surviving, and holding its own, that would be worthy of study, because "we've been reporting its near demise for decades now." He agrees that one thing that has happened to turn language attitudes around in Papua New Guinea has been the government thrust toward elementary education in the local languages.

8. Cure for endangered languages

There are some groups in the world who, with help from linguists are attempting to increase their speaker population by publishing pedagogical grammars with audio tapes, dictionaries, newspapers, having courses taught in schools and community colleges, evening classes for adults, programs on the radio and television. These are having some success. But the most important thing that can happen to preserve a language is for parents to continue passing on their mother tongue to their children in the home.

8.1 Examples of successful preservation of endangered languages

8.1.1 Hebrew

There is some good news. There are languages that have been able to recover wholly or partially from being endangered. The most famous example of all, of course, is Hebrew, which is now estimated to have 5,150,000 mother tongue speakers in the world. They make up 81% of the population of Israel. Nearly everyone in Israel speaks Hebrew as either their first or second language.[43]

8.1.2 Cornish (Great Britain)

Cornish from the United Kingdom is another example of a language which is coming back. It became extinct as a mother tongue in 1777, but members of the ethnic group have brought it back recently so that there are reported to be a number of people under 20 who use it as first language, 1,000 who use it as their everyday language, and 2,000 others who speak it fluently. They have evening classes, correspondence courses, summer camps, childrens' play groups, and it is taught in some schools.[44]

8.1.3 Hawaiian via immersion schools & Hawaiian studies program at the University

In 1778 when people from outside Polynesia first came to Hawaii, there were estimated to be over 500,000 Hawaiians, all of whom spoke Hawaiian. In 1900 there were an estimated 37,000 mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian, but today there are only 1,000 mother tongue speakers left. Half of the mother tongue speakers are elderly. 8,000 others can speak and understand it out of 220,000 members of the ethnic group. In the early days many of the Hawaiians died from measles and other diseases brought in by foreigners, for which they did not have immunity. When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by American businessmen in 1893, English was made the national language, and people were told to not talk Hawaiian at home or in school. This policy continued when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. However, recently the Hawaiians have started total immersion schools, adding one school year each year, and now they have grades one through twelve taught in the Hawaiian language. The total immersion schools are growing in number. Many parents are also studying the language so they can talk to their children at home in Hawaiian. The University of Hawaii now has a graduate program in Hawaiian Studies, which includes a concentration in the Hawaiian language.[45]

8.1.4 Maori (New Zealand) via immersion schools

The Hawaiian immersion schools were patterned after those of the Maori in New Zealand, a related Polynesian language, which are having similar results. There are now an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 mother tongue speakers of Maori, and 100,000 other Maori people who understand but do not speak it, out of 310,000 people in the ethnic group.[46]

8.1.5 Mexican languages via literacy, linguistics & medical work

There are other languages that have been able to come back through literacy classes and other education, linguistic work, and modern medicine. Two examples are from Mexico. In 1942 there were an estimated 178 Lacandón, a Mayan language in southern Mexico already mentioned, but in the year 2000 nearly 1,000 speakers.[47] In 1951, there were 215 Seri, a Hokan language in northern Mexico, but in 2000 it had an estimated 800 speakers.[48]

8.1.6 Waorani (Ecuador) via similar factors plus consensus not to seek revenge

Another example is from Ecuador. The Waorani were estimated to be 150 in number when they became widely known for killing five missionaries in 1956. They were declining at that time because of repeatedly feuding and killing each other, including their own family members. Now after linguistic work, literacy classes and other education, modern medicine, and a consensus among them not to seek revenge, they are estimated to be nearly 1,400 in number.[49]

8.1.7 Nambikuara (Brazil) via similar factors

The Nambikuara of Brazil were reduced in the 1940s from 10,000 to 600 through measles, but have been experiencing renewal through literacy and other education, medicine, and linguistic work. They are now estimated to be 900 in number.[50]

8.1.8 Other endangered languages via research of outside linguists, anthropologists and physical science people

Some endangered languages have been described by linguists who have published grammars, dictionaries, and annotated text collections. Some have also had their cultures and ecology described by anthropologists, botonists, zoologists, and other scholars. But many endangered languages are still needing these kinds of studies.

9. Conclusion

There is hope for endangered languages if increased effort is put into in-depth language evaluation, linguistic description, literacy work and other education, access to modern medicine, sanitation, agriculture, and other forms of aid.


  1. Grimes, Joseph E. 1980. Huichol Life Form Classification I: Animals. Anthropological Linguistics 22:187-200; II: Plants. Anthropological Linguistics 22:264-74.
  2. B. F. Grimes, 2000, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Dallas: SIL International, p. 502.
  3. Ibid, p. 502.
  4. Ibid, p. 366.
  5. Ibid, p. 498; Charles E. Grimes, 1995, Digging for the roots of language death in eastern Indonesia: the cases of Kayeli and Hukumina, published as ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, Document No. ED 384231, Washington: U.S. Department of Education, paper presented at Linguistic Society of America meetings, New Orleans, 1995;.-----, 2000, Defining speech communities on Buru Island: a look at both linguistic and non-linguistic factors, in Charles E. Grimes, ed., Spices from the East: Papers in languages of eastern Indonesia, Pacific Linguistics 503:73-103; Barbara D. Grimes, 1994, Cloves and nutmeg, traders and wars: language contact in the Spice Islands, in Thomas Dutton and Darrell T. Tryon, eds., Language contact and change in the Austronesian world, Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 77, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 251-274.
  6. B. F. Grimes 2000, op.cit., p. 303.
  7. Ibid, p. 293.
  8. Ibid, p. 291.
  9. Ibid, p. 717.
  10. Ibid, p. 718.
  11. Ibid, p. 719.
  12. Ibid, p. 291.
  13. Ibid, p. 497.
  14. Ibid, pp. 715-6.
  15. Ibid, p 288.
  16. Ibid, p. 290.
  17. Ibid, p. 411.
  18. Ibid, p. 416.
  19. Ibid, p. 478.
  20. Ibid, p. 307.
  21. Ibid, pp. 277, 298.
  22. Ibid, pp. 267, 347.
  23. Ibid, p. 357.
  24. Ibid, p. 362.
  25. Ibid, p. 298.
  26. Ibid, pp. 282, 363.
  27. Ibid, p. 344.
  28. Ibid, p. 793.
  29. Ibid, pp. 296-7.
  30. Ibid, p. 617.
  31. Sakiyama, Osamu. 1980. The Characteristics of Nguluwan from the Viewpoint of Language Contact, in Machiko Aoyagi, ed., Islanders and their Outside World. Tokyo: Rikkyo University.
  32. B. Grimes, op. cit. p. 286.
  33. Ibid, p. 804.
  34. Ibid, p. 297.
  35. Colloquium on Language Endangerment, Research and Documentation: Setting Priorities for the 21st Century, held at Bad Godesberg, February 12-17, 2000, led by Matthias Brenzinger, Köln University.
  36. B. Grimes, op. cit. p. 318.
  37. Ibid, p. 366.
  38. Ibid, p. 330.
  39. Ibid, p. 292.
  40. Ibid, p. 351.
  41. Ibid, p. 296.
  42. Ibid, p. 299.
  43. Ibid, p. 536.
  44. Ibid, p. 707.
  45. Ibid, pp. 366-7.
  46. Ibid, p. 739.
  47. Baer, Sr., Phillip, Not the Last of the Lacandones, in Richard S. Pittman, 1998, Back from the Brink: Sixteen Accounts of Ethnic Renaissance. Waxhaw, North Carolina: SIL International, pp. 15-16, and Mary Baer 2000, personal communication.
  48. Moser, Mary Beck with Richard Pittman, Sonoran Desert Survivors, in R. S. Pittman, op. cit, pp. 11-12, and Mary Moser 2000, personal communication.
  49. Smith, Donald E. Waorani Renaissance, in R. S. Pittman, op. cit., pp. 6-7.
  50. Kroeker, Menno, and Barbara Kroeker, No Longer Endangered Nambikuara, in R. S. Pittman, op. cit., pp. 33-34.

Posted with Permission

Grimes, Barbara F. 2001. Global language viability. In Osamu Sakiyama (ed.), Endangered languages of the Pacific rim: lectures on endangered languages 2; From Kyoto conference 2000, 45-68. ELPR Publication Series C002. Osaka, Japan: ELPR.