EndangeredLanguages.com

Economic prosperity is putting the world’s languages at risk, according to a new study, which found that one quarter of all known languages are at risk of extinction.

According to the report, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 1,705 of the 6,909 known languages are threatened by three factors: small range size, or the geographical area in which the language is spoken, small speaker population size and decline in the number of people who speak the language.

The researchers found that these languages are spoken in regions that share certain geological attributes. For example, small range sizes and speaker population are both correlated with high levels of precipitation. These maps show where each of the three factors present a greatest risk:

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

The researchers, however, also found that a country’s wealth negatively affected its language richness:

"The most important factor for explaining speaker growth rate was a socioeconomic factor, GDP per capita… Languages have recently declined particularly in areas with high GDP per capita and temperature seasonality.”

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According to the report authors, regions with high per capita GDP, like Australia and North America, contain language-threat "hotspots."

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

The authors explain that economic growth becomes a factor in language retention because of a lack of inter-generational language continuity — as countries get richer, youth are less likely to keep the language of their parents and grandparents alive. In their words:

"The dominating effect of a single socioeconomic factor, GDP per capita, on speaker growth rate suggests that economic growth and globalization…are primary drivers of recent language speaker declines (mainly since the 1970s onwards), for instance, via associated political and educational developments and globalized socioeconomic dynamics."

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We can see a slice of this phenomenon in the context of the influx of Central American migrant children, who are starting school in the U.S. this fall. Some of them grew up speaking native Mayan languages — but are taught English at school.

More: For some Central American kids who speak only a native Mayan language, the U.S. classroom is tough

Other areas, like the Himalayan region and the tropics, are also at risk of losing languages.
UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger and the Catalogue of Endangered Languages keep tabs on some of these sparsely-spoken languages. The Endangered Languages site, which draws information from the Catalogue, shows the distribution of endangered languages by region. This map shows the concentration of severely endangered languages in Australia:

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Screenshot from EndangeredLanguages.com

And these maps do the same for the Americas:

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Screenshot from EndangeredLanguages.com

According to the catalogue, some at-risk languages are only spoken by a handful of people. Ritharrangu, which is endangered, is spoken by fewer than 300 people in Northern Australia. Dalabon, which is critically endangered, is spoken by 5 speakers in the same region. In 2012, Fusion met the only two people who speak Ayapanec-Zoque in Mexico, and watched them have a conversation. One language, Northern Sierra Miwok is spoken by only one person.

Several organizations, like UNESCO, the Linguistic Society of America, The Long Now Foundations, and others are working to preserve sparsely spoken languages.

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