What is an endangered language?
It is estimated that nearly half of the roughly 7105 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear within the next few generations, mostly as a result of the decrease in the number of the youngest speakers. Such languages are classified as endangered.
The few thousand languages spoken today are remaining relics of a once much richer pool of languages. The current erosion of language diversity is part of a long term process that has probably dramatically accelerated during the last few thousand years. According to some researchers, it is a consequence of the switch in the lifestyle of human communities from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming. Present-day disappearing languages are therefore a valuable source of knowledge, not only about human experiences and unique forms of cultural expression, but also in regards to the prehistory of our species.
We can distinguish several, basic criteria which characterize the level of language endangerment. One of them is the number of native speakers: people who use a specific language and consider it an important part of their identity. A language might be threatened because there are fewer and fewer people who use it and pass it on to their children. In some cases, the number of speakers is not a sufficient indicator of language vitality. Languages spoken by thousands of people might be in a critical situation, while others with a few hundred speakers may be vital and stable.
Other indicators of the level of endangerment of a language include the amount and depth of domains and social functions associated with its use; trends in the population size of the native speakers, their residency and patterns of migration; use of second languages; language attitudes within the community; official language status and language policy; amount and quality of documentation; response to new domains and media; quantity and quality of material for language education and literacy; and means of language transmission.
The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger classifies 2471 languages into 5 categories:
A language is considered safe if it is spoken by all generations and the intergenerational transmission of the language is uninterrupted.
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