Languages are living and dynamic. Communities speak various languages that shape their lives and culture. Ethnologue says that there are 7,097 living languages in the world today. However, about 40 percent of the languages are already endangered. The number of speakers is dwindling, making it rarer to hear these languages. While there are still thousands of living languages existing today, more than half of the population in the world speaks only 23 languages.
What “endangered language” means
Technically, linguists do not call languages with very few speakers “rare.” Instead, they call them endangered. And when a language becomes endangered, extinction is possible in the future.
Some languages fall out of use because they are replaced by more commonly spoken languages in the region or country. If there is no reversal in the trend, many more languages will move from being endangered to being extinct. Many people, especially the new generations of children and adults, do not try to learn the language of their parents and grandparents. With fewer speakers, the languages die along with the last speakers.
According to a book published in the EU, three criteria indicate that a language is endangered:
- The number of living speakers
- The mean age of fluent or native speakers
- The percentage of the younger generation that is fluent in a particular language
The Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages of UNESCO says that an endangered language is one that falls into these criteria:
- Regular speakers reduce the use of the language in daily communication.
- Native speakers fail to pass the language to succeeding generations.
The situation between the number of speakers, and whether the language is alive or in danger, differs. For example, Icelandic has around 300,000 speakers, but you cannot consider it as endangered because it is the primary language in Iceland. However, in one province of Cameroon, Yemba, also has about 300,000 speakers. But more people are switching to English and Pidgin, so Yemba’s native speakers are diminishing.
Endangered and rare languages
About 6,000 of the living languages are already in danger or vulnerable, as the number of speakers keeps getting smaller. Many of these languages do not have written forms, so learning the language is ambiguous. Moreover, to conform to society, younger generations speak the dominant language and refuse to speak their first language.
Here are some of the endangered and rare languages around the world.
This language is one of the oldest languages of the North Caucasian language family. Likewise, many believe that ancient Caucasian Albania used Udi as well. As of 2009, only about 6,000 speakers exist. The majority of the speakers are in some villages in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Udi is already a severely endangered language.
The latest data available for the Kendem language is from 2001, where about 1,500 people from three villages in Cameroon, namely Bokwa, Kekpoti, and Kendem, still speak the language. Kendem is related to Nyang (Mamfe), one of the Southern Bantoid languages. With no teachers available to teach the language, it is not used as a medium of instruction.
In the Badakhshan Province (Afghanistan) and Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (Tajikistan), about 2,500 residents speak Ishkashimi natively. But that number was from 2005. With the tensions in the region, speakers were dispersed. Experts predict that it is going to be extinct in the next century, as Ishkashimi competes with Dari and Tajikistan languages.
Brazil has several indigenous languages. From the Mura language branch, Pirahã is the last survivor. It is a rare language, as there are only about 250 to 380 speakers back in 2009. Pirahã is rare as a language because the speakers are isolated. But while it is endangered because of the low number of speakers, the community that speaks the language is monolingual, so the use of Pirahã is still vigorous.
Back in 2000, about 3,550 native speakers of Tunebo or Uw Cuwa were found in Colombia. It is interesting to note that the language has distinct dialects, which are still used, such as Barro Negro, Agua Blanca, Tegría, and Cobaría. The U’wa natives’ term for their language is Uw’aka that translates to the ”soul of the people.” Another distinct feature of this rare language is the existence of a dictionary and written grammar.
Until 2008, not many people know about the Koro language, which is an indigenous language of an Indian tribe found in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Researchers believe that the language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Most of the 1,500 speakers of Koro (2010) are adults, prompting linguists to declare that it will become extinct soon. Researchers attempt to find Koro’s relationship with other indigenous languages in the region. Still, most of them believe that the language is distinct due to differences in structure, words, and sounds.
In 2004, there were about 6,000 native speakers of Ormuri. They are from tribes living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Waziristan that have been occupying the region for over 2,300 years. This Eastern-Iranian language is also known as Baraki.
Ottawa, or Odawa, is a language spoken by small groups in northern Michigan in the U.S. and southern Ontario in Canada. In the 2016 census in Canada, there are only 360 native speakers in the country. While in the United States, about 9,735 people speak Ottawa, according to the 2009-2013 language survey. The number of speakers is diminishing because younger people prefer English as their first language.
Papua New Guinea is known worldwide for having the most number of spoken languages. In 1981, there were about 4,300 native speakers of Rotokas in Bougainville, an island in Papua New Guinea. Rotokas only has 12 letters in its alphabet and 11 phonemes, consisting of five vowels and six consonants.
We know very little about the Sentinelese language. Even the given name is from the place where it is spoken, the North Sentinel Island, which is inhabited by the Sentinelese people. Until more information becomes available, the name of the language is temporary. Researchers find it difficult to gather information because the Sentinelese people refuse entry to outsiders into their island. They estimate that only around 100 to 250 people speak the language natively, which corresponds to the estimated population of the island.
More endangered languages
The languages we have above still have a large number of native speakers, if you compare it to the endangered languages listed below. Some of the reasons why these languages are rapidly getting in danger include globalization, low efforts in the preservation of the language, and the imposition of using official languages.
- Chamicuro– a language in Peru, is in the dormant stage. As of 2019, there are no known speakers. The language has a dictionary, but children prefer to speak Spanish.
- Dumi– is a language in Nepal, and is one of the least spoken and rarest languages in the world. A study estimates that there are still 7,300 speakers of Dumi across the globe. However, there are no known native speakers of the language. In 2007, only 8 people in Nepal spoke Dumi.
- Ongota– is an endangered language of Ethiopia. UNESCO’s report in 2012 said that there are only 12 native speakers of the language.
- Liki– is an Austronesian language spoken in a few islands around Indonesia. In 2005, about 11 speakers still existed. Recent data reveal only about five persons speak the language.
- Tanema– is a language in the Solomon Islands, but it may be considered extinct, since there was only one known speaker back in 2012.
- Chemehuevi– In parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada, you can still find speakers of Chemehuevi. In 2007, about 920 indigenous people spoke the language.
Several more are probably facing extinction, as the data about the language were from several years back:
- Lemerig– spoken in Vanuatu only has two speakers in 2010
- Taushiro– a language isolate in the Peruvian Amazon, which only had one living speaker in 2017
- Ainu– a language isolate in some parts of Japan. The only survivor is the Hokkaido Ainu variety, with two known speakers.
Rare languages interpreters encounter
In countries with multiethnic populations, interpreters and translators often encounter rare and endangered languages. In the United States, for example, residents speak about 350 languages, with 162 that are not native to the nation.
Some legal interpreters report that they have encountered legal interpreting requests for rare languages, such as:
- Karen (parts of Myanmar and Thailand)
- Kekchi or Q’eqchi (parts of Belize and Guatemala)
- Kru or Bassa (Liberia, Ivory Coast)
- Ganda (Uganda)
- K’iche’ or Kaqchikel (central regions of Guatemala)
Interpreters find it difficult because some of the languages do not have equivalent words in English. Speakers of other languages, such are Kekchi, are naturally detailed oriented. Some speakers follow a different calendar, and their concept of time is different, making it harder for interpreters to determine actual date and time. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) prepared a position paper in 2016 to help prepare interpreters who handle rare languages.
eTS is ready to help you with rare language interpreting
eTranslation Services has an extensive network of native-speaking interpreters, and we can connect you with speakers of rare languages to handle your rare language interpreting request. We promote proper and accurate communication, so, whenever you need services to handle rare languages, send us an email at [email protected] or call (800) 882-6058.