What’s an endangered language?

Pandas. Elephants. Monarch butterflies. We’ve all heard of endangered species (especially the cute ones), and know there’s value in preserving them. But what about endangered languages? Have you heard of the Mlomp language of Senegal? How about the Tamazight language of Algeria? Or my personal favourite, the Cocama-Cocamilla language of Brazil?

There are over 2000 languages on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. Over a third of all the languages in the world, in fact – but some linguists estimate that as many as half the world’s 7,361 languages may be at risk.

Numbers are helpful for giving us an overview. But the truth is, it’s not about the numbers. It’s not even about the languages. It’s about the people who speak them. You can listen to some speakers of endangered languages for yourself in the following video. Listen out for the clicks in the N/u language at 1:15!

SIL, one of Wycliffe’s partner organisations, recognises the value of individual languages and believes that each language is a unique expression of culture and worldview. SIL is dedicated to coming alongside language communities as they strive to preserve their languages and identities. For more on endangered languages, check out SIL’s endangered languages page. For more on some of the people behind the numbers, have a look at Wade Davis’s TED Talk, where he uses some amazing photos to illustrate what the loss of a language really means.

One of the ripple effects of Bible translation is that languages are preserved and strengthened. A member of the Bydla* translation team, who was the first Bydla Christian, reports that some words have actually been brought back into use thanks to Bible translation in her language:

‘Without this project, our language was withering; now it is saved.’

 

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