Languages Do Die – Here’s Why

Jul 20, 2017

Content languages do die   here s why

Is there any way to really know how many languages exist in the world? Probably not. The average person will say probably several hundred. The latest number from Ethnologue, a catalogue of world languages, lists 7,097 – quite a step up from several hundred. The other thing that the folks at Ethnologue tell us is that languages are dying – in fact 34% of the world’s languages are now “endangered.” How does this happen? Do people just stop speaking their own language that they have used for centuries?

UNESCO states that probably half of the languages currently in use all over this planet will be extinct by 2100 – that will be over 3500 if we take Ethnologue’s number. These are tribal languages or other minority languages in countries when “cultural colonization” is taking place. This means that the dominant culture of a country is assimilating and absorbing minority populations, and they are adopting the dominant language. In India, for example, it is reported that 20% of its indigenous languages have died since 1961.

The truth is, languages die for many reasons. Here are the most common:


There are actually two forms of colonialism. One is the type that occurred from the 16th century forward. Foreign powers invaded underdeveloped areas of the Americas, Asia, and Africa and became the ruling classes in those colonies. Gradually, the language of the ruling power became the dominant one, and local indigenous languages began to die out.

The other type of colonialism is more modern. There are indigenous tribes in most countries. As these people begin to give up their territories and their cultures, and as young people within these cultures adopt the culture, mores, and language of the dominant society, languages die.


Wars can mean conquest but also genocide and displacement. When these things happen, cultures are assaulted, and languages can die out along with the people who spoke them. Such events began with the Roman Empire conquering whole cultures in Europe and move through the centuries with Europeans conquering native Americans and aborigine tribes in the Pacific.


The amazing global economic, social, and educational opportunities that reach around the planet have brought much good. As cultures communicate with one another, we breed tolerance, understanding, as well as some very bad things – terrorism for one.

Communication and business among peoples means that certain international languages must be learned by all. For a long time that language has been English, but that is giving way to Chinese, Spanish, and even Japanese and Arabic. Learning these languages makes people more employable on the world stage, and parents and schools insist upon native children learning the “higher” language of their countries in order to improve their lives. Thus, such languages as Breton, Catalan, Basque have little chance of surviving more than a couple of decades, particularly when governments in countries like France supply little support for them.

Global Warming

Yes, even global warming is having an impact on languages. There are many islands, especially in the Pacific, inhabited for centuries by native populations that speak a unique language. As the ice melts and the oceans rise, these islands are facing the physical extinction of being swallowed up. As this happens, as is currently the case with the island of Takuu in the South Pacific. Natives speak Takuu, but as they are being forced to move to Papua, New Guinea, their language will die.

Why Do We Care?

Of course, if the language of Takuu dies, most of the world will not even know it or care. And as other minor languages die, no one raises any fuss. Here is the thing though: when languages die, cultures die with them. And when cultures die, the world is a little bit less rich.