Skip to main content

Enduring Voices project survey shows languages at risk of extinction

RAPID CITY, S.D. - American Indian educators in the northern Great Plains have advocated for language education. The result is that more than 30 percent of the Lakota people can speak their language.

Only the Navajo have a higher percentage of speakers.

According to a survey by the National Geographic Enduring Voices project, many indigenous languages are headed for extinction very soon. Some languages have only one elder speaker; and when a language disappears, so does a culture.

The Enduring Voices study, conducted worldwide, identified regions across the globe that were at risk of losing languages. In the United States, two at-risk regions are in Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest.

Every two weeks, a language dies somewhere in the world; and by the end of the century, more than half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world will disappear, according to the study.

The reason for the language loss, the study noted, is that dominant languages or the languages of powerful groups of people has taken hold while the smaller groups' languages have been pushed aside.

''This occurs through official language policies or through the allure that the high prestige of speaking an imperial language can bring,'' the study stated.

In Indian country, boarding schools of the past prohibited American Indians from speaking their language. Some of those people, now grandparents, did not encourage their children to speak the language. However, in many cases, the language remained underground and only resurfaced a generation ago.

Schools in Montana and South Dakota have now dedicated curriculum instruction to the American Indian culture and languages. Just last year, Montana provided funding for cultural and language curriculum in public schools. South Dakota is searching for ways to incorporate indigenous language and culture into its public school curriculum.

In California, according to the survey, 50 languages remain, none of which is taught in the schools.

''Languages not learned by children are not just endangered, they are doomed,'' Lyle Campbell, a linguist professor at the University of Utah, told National Geographic.

Campbell said that to look at hotspots where language is diminishing may be misleading.

''Essentially all Native languages are under threat.''

Gary Holton of the University of Alaska said that the definition of a language and who counts as a speaker may be changing. Dialects have altered languages to a degree when the dialect or slang becomes the language. He added that some people who are partial speakers may someday be considered fluent speakers.

In the Great Plains, educators and elders knew the clock was ticking on the languages; and for at least a decade or more, every gathering of American Indian educators has included workshops dedicated to the teaching of the language and culture. Many of the schools in South Dakota include elders in the student's language and cultural education, utilizing them as language mentors.

Montana has implemented a diverse public school curriculum called Education for All, and elders are present in many of the public schools as well as reservation schools.

Some hotspots that were identified as at risk of losing a language are in Bolivia, northern Australia, eastern Siberia and two locations in South America.

Bolivia, according to Enduring Voices, had a more diversified language base than all of Europe, but Spanish is crowding the other languages out.

It is estimated that 80 percent of natural species, which include plant and animal life, have not been discovered by science but are known by the people who live in the regions through oral history, according to David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. That knowledge is also at risk.

Many of the languages in North America were written down by religious clergy who moved among the tribes. Today, books are written about the language by fluent speakers in order to continue the original intent of the pronunciation and meaning. One of the most acclaimed writers of the Lakota language is Albert White Hat, Sicangu Lakota and director of the Lakota language program at Sinte Gleska University.

He said to learn the dominant language doesn't mean that a person's original language has to be sacrificed.

''Master the Western culture, master the English language; I don't have to be like them if I learn their ways. Don't water academics down. Deal with it. Knowledge doesn't force you into something,'' White Hat said.