UNESCO has warned that minority languages are threatened with extinction: out of the 6,900 languages spoken across the world, 2,500 are in danger of disappearing, a figure which is expected to rise to 90% by the end of the 21st century.
Currently the most spoken languages in the world are Chinese, with 1.213 billion speakers, Spanish (329 million), English (328 million) and Arabic (221 million), while ranked at the bottom are 199 minority languages spoken by fewer than ten people, including Wichita, spoken in Oklahoma, and Karaim, with only six speakers living in a small area of Ukraine.
Anthony Aristar, a leading researcher in linguistics at the National Science Foundation, claims that: “A language is not just words and grammar; it is a web of history that binds all the people who once spoke the language, all the things they did together, all the knowledge they imparted to their descendants. When a language dies, it’s just the same as when a species dies. You lose a part of the network of life, and you lose everything it could impart.” The National Science Foundation has been working in this area for many years and has created a website that lists all the endangered languages, gathering the related data, lexicon and recordings, and compiling catalogues of them. Aristar himself explains the reason behind this project: “While a language is still living, there’s always hope that it can be saved for posterity. If we don’t do this work, there might come a time when all that is left is the cultures reflected by the ‘big’ languages such as English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.”
Almost half of the world’s minority languages have disappeared in the last 500 years, and the growing pace of what by now seems to be an unstoppable process is alarming.
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