Modern Languages

More than half of the world’s languages could be extinct by the end of the century, and many may not last beyond 2050. Charlie Furniss reports

The decline of global diversity is a familiar, if depressing refrain these days. And while the threats to the world’s biodiversity gain regular attention, we were recently reminded that our linguistic diversity is also in danger, as UNESCO celebrated International Mother Language day on 21 February.

Research by Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, suggests that humans have spoken more than 130,000 languages during the past 100,000 years, and that at the peak of diversity, around 10,000 years ago, there were at least 12,000 in use. According to UNESCO, there are around 6,700 languages in use today, and most other estimates put the figure somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000.

More than half of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and may be lost by the end of the century. Many of the most critically endangered are found in the Americas and Australia, where 337 languages are spoken by only a few elderly people. These will most likely not last beyond 2050.

For years now, we’ve been hearing of the threat that globalisation poses to diversity of all kinds. But just as it seems as if we’re losing the battle against homogeneity, a new opportunity to preserve our linguistic diversity has emerged from what was once considered the frontline of cultural homogenisation – the internet….

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