Revitalising endangered languages

  • Written by  Alice Sloman
  • Published in Cultures
The Mongolian language is one of the endangered tongues that can be found on the Tribalingual website (Image: Chanwit Whanset) The Mongolian language is one of the endangered tongues that can be found on the Tribalingual website (Image: Chanwit Whanset)
21 Jul
2017
Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the eight most spoken are accounted for by 40 per cent of the world’s population

Languages are considered endangered when their last fluent speakers reach old age and when children are no longer learning it as their primary tongue. The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger reveals that 18 of the world’s 2,464 officially ‘endangered’ languages have just one living speaker (Bishuo, spoken in Cameroon, for instance). With the exception of just three (Patwin, Tolowa and Wintu-Nomlaki, Native American languages found in California), these are all based in the so-called ‘global south’. The Handbook of Endangered Languages acknowledges that economic, political, cultural and social power is held by those who speak the ‘majority languages’ while those that don’t are often marginalised and under pressure to shift towards learning a more ‘global’ language.

Not all people experiencing language shift feel marginalised though. Many Nigerians, for example, happily embrace the use of English as a lingua franca, viewing it as progressive. Others however, see their native language as a significant marker of ethnic and national identity. Nigerian artist Adé Bantu expressed this in his song No More No Vernacular, a critique of the Nigerian school system which prohibits children from speaking indigenous languages.

Tribalingual founder, Inky Gibbens, began her social mission to ‘save, preserve and support’ rare cultures and traditions after discovering the native language of her grandparents – Buryat, a dialect of Mongolia – was classified as ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO and finding there was no means of learning it online.

Academics suggest there are three categories of response to language endangerment: Do nothing (known as ‘benign neglect’), document languages before they disappear, or promote language revitalisation. Scholars have since considered a fourth response, which aims to examine the causes of language endangerment and promote sustainable environments for them.

WorldWatch Cartogram NEWCartogram showing the geographic distribution of language diversity around the world (Image: Benjamin Hennig)

However, the majority of funding goes into recording rather than revitalising endangered languages. The SOAS Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR), and the World Oral Literature Project, for example, document rare languages to prevent their total extinction. A core belief at Tribalingual is that the only means of saving languages and cultures is by teaching them. Archiving alone risks reducing rare languages to ‘static objects,’ as they are denied the chance to thrive in practice.

‘When I founded Tribalingual, I wanted to have a minimum viable product to take to market and test my hypothesis that there were people out there actually interested in learning about unique languages and cultures,’ Gibbens tells Geographical. ‘Through my network I found people who were passionately committed to preserving and teaching their culture and language. Luckily for us, there were also many learners who share our excitement about culture and language.’

According to Gibbens, Tribalingual ‘is fast becoming a global network of culture and language enthusiasts who are passionate about preserving our world’s diversity.’ As the ‘first online learning platform for teaching rare and endangered languages,’ it treats all languages and cultures equally, irrespective of socio-political situation.

The ‘rare language’ courses currently available include: Ainu (a Japanese language with just 15 speakers left), Gangte (Sino-Tibetan, spoken in Northeast India), Greko (from southern Italy) and Mongolian, with further plans to include the Nigerian language, Yorùbá, by late August. Although not on the UNESCO list, Yorùbá could (among other things) play a vital role in contemporary development agendas as one of the most most widely spoken African language outside the continent itself.

red line

NEVER MISS A STORY

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Cultures

Contrary to pervasive myth, Easter Islanders were resourceful and sensitive…

Explorers

With the world accurately navigated by multi-constellation satellites, what is…

Development

A rapid malaria test has stemmed overuse of antimalarials, but…

I’m a Geographer

Hans Friederich is the director general for INBAR, the International…

Development

A global boom in battery usage over the coming century…

I’m a Geographer

Prafulla Samantra led a 12-year legal battle against the Indian government’s…

Explorers

A selection of in-depth workshops at the RGS-IBG's Explore 2017…

Explorers

Earlier this year, a group of packrafters set out on…

Development

China’s central government is to shut down factories and punish local…

Explorers

While travelling across the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh,…

Explorers

New evidence suggests the historic Antarctic expeditionary may have been…

I’m a Geographer

Regina ‘Gina’ Lopez, an environmental activist, former Environmental Secretary to…

Development

As the global supply of water comes under increased strain,…

I’m a Geographer

Bonita Norris is an adventurer, public speaker and television presenter, who…

Explorers

Ten women, ten days, two very different matriarchal groups. When…

I’m a Geographer

Clive Hamilton is an Australian author and Professor of Public Ethics…

Development

Cambodia has stopped selling its sand overseas, a move that…

Explorers

Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the…

I’m a Geographer

Rodrigue Katembo risked his life to expose the corruption behind illegal…

Cultures

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the…