Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.
National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project (conducted in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages) strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots—the places on our planet with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages—and documenting the languages and cultures within them.
Why Is It Important?
Language defines a culture, through the people who speak it and what it allows speakers to say. Words that describe a particular cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language. Many endangered languages have rich oral cultures with stories, songs, and histories passed on to younger generations, but no written forms. With the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost.
Much of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. Indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years often have profound insights into local lands, plants, animals, and ecosystems—many still undocumented by science. Studying indigenous languages therefore benefits environmental understanding and conservation efforts.
Studying various languages also increases our understanding of how humans communicate and store knowledge. Every time a language dies, we lose part of the picture of what our brains can do.
Why Do Languages Die Out?
Throughout human history, the languages of powerful groups have spread while the languages of smaller cultures have become extinct. This occurs through official language policies or through the allure that the high prestige of speaking an imperial language can bring. These trends explain, for instance, why more language diversity exists in Bolivia than on the entire European continent, which has a long history of large states and imperial powers.
As big languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the dominant language. Depending on attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or they may forget it as it falls out of use. This has occurred throughout human history, but the rate of language disappearance has accelerated dramatically in recent years.
The information contained in this article can be found by visiting National Geographic.