The Threat Facing Endangered Languages

Article by Hannah Leske.

For all of the language service providers (LSPs) in the world today, the vast majority offer some combination of the same languages — English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, and so on. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Companies tailor their services to meet demand, so it’s only logical that they cater to the most common languages, especially when the top 20 most-used languages reach 50 percent of the world’s population. 

But what about all the others? It is estimated that there are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, yet, according to the UNESCO Atlas of Languages in Danger, more than 40 percent are in danger of disappearing. 

Sadly, indigenous languages of colonial or postcolonial nations are disproportionately represented on this list. 

Countries with the most critically endangered languages

Source: On the Edge: Critically Endangered Languages in Top Countries

In many cases, this can be linked to histories of colonial aggression, including the massacre of indigenous peoples and banning of native languages. Official policies have since changed in most countries (thank goodness), and revival efforts are underway in some, but, unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done. Many indigenous languages lack a critical mass of speakers and adequate societal support to enable them to thrive today, so the odds of long-term survival are still low. In Australia, for example, just 11 of the 141 surviving Indigenous languages have more than one thousand speakers, and fewer than 20 are expected to survive beyond the current generations.

It is immensely important, therefore, to consider what happens if translation and interpreting services aren’t readily available for vulnerable and endangered languages. What options are available to speakers of these languages, and what impact does this have on language survival? 

We may not like to admit it, but the impact is significant.

For individuals who learn a vulnerable or endangered language from birth, there will almost certainly come a time when more widely used languages are necessary in order to communicate with the broader community. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, and multilingualism should be promoted! However, it becomes an issue when minority language speakers aren’t afforded equal access to society in their native tongues, whether this refers to education, health and welfare information, or even literature and film. After all, language exists primarily as a form of communication. 

When individuals are excluded from everyday life because of the languages they speak (or don’t speak, as the case may be), there is an understandable temptation to defer to more common languages when communicating with younger generations. The danger is that once-vibrant communities dwindle to tiny populations and languages are left behind. Alarmingly, this can happen within as little as three generations. 

Why we should care about language extinction

Language is more than just words in a dictionary. It forms a huge part of cultural identity, and losing a language has more significant repercussions than just losing a set of words or a form of daily communication. 

If you’re an English speaker, consider the particularities of US versus British English (for example), and the reaffirmation of identity when you encounter someone abroad who uses the same vocabulary as you — think of words like rubbish/trash, school/university/college, or football/soccer. Now bear in mind that these are only variations of the same language and that the cultural gap is far greater between two entirely different languages.

Studies have also shown that language influences the way we think and is tied to intellectual sovereignty. Language is often responsible for passing down cultural heritage and knowledge through generations. In the words of UNESCO endangered languages expert Irmgarda Kasinskaite-Buddeberg, indigenous languages “equip their users with an invaluable skillset and expertise in different fields, from the environment to education, the economy, social and political life, and family relations.” 

As if that wasn’t enough evidence, reviving languages in marginalized communities has also been linked to lower suicide rates and improved mental health.

The current state of language revival and where we can go from here

Approaches to protecting endangered or vulnerable languages vary from country to country and even state to state. Legislative mandates help drive change, but the organizational inertia of governments often hinders timely progress. Language preservation frequently falls to community members, who invest innumerable hours of work in safeguarding their language and culture for the next generations, but the reality is that reviving and protecting languages can only go so far. Society extends beyond the world of public services and private business. It encompasses education, radio, advertisements, the internet, and so much more.

For an endangered language to survive in the long run, it must be present beyond native speakers’ home environments.

Around the world, there are some inspiring projects that aim to do exactly that. One example is bringing indigenous languages to TV sets — and not just news channels, but children's programs too! Examples of this can be found in places like Canada, Scotland, and Australia.

Private organizations and individuals are getting better at offering multilingual access solutions and promoting cultural diversity, but they also can’t do it alone. 

Putting the spotlight on LSPs

As the primary providers of translation and interpreting services, LSPs have a role to play when it comes to proactively promoting indigenous languages to buyers. We won’t pretend that it’ll always be straightforward to offer vulnerable or endangered language options, and there are a number of reasons why providers may choose to put it in the “too-hard” basket, for instance: 

  • There is often a shortage of translators and interpreters for languages that only have a few hundred or thousand speakers, and formal training or certifications are hard to come by.
  • Professional expectations often differ between indigenous and western communities — sometimes bridging this gap can be as challenging as finding qualified interpreters!
  • Ethical dilemmas such as confidentiality of end users and anonymity of linguists can pose a problem, particularly in small communities.
  • In many markets, buyers don’t fully understand the communities that they are trying to serve, so discerning what buyers say they want and what they actually need can be difficult.

These challenges do not outweigh the benefits that LSPs stand to gain from exploring endangered language service provision, though. 

Even if societal and cultural welfare isn’t enough to inspire companies, providers need to stay ahead of their competition if they want to prosper, and the trends surrounding indigenous awareness and cultural sensitivity speak for themselves.

Societal values are shifting and, as awareness increases, so too will demand for accessibility solutions.

Don’t just take our word for it! Look to Australia, where the federal government recently committed AUD 22.8 million (about USD 15.9 million) to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, or to the US, where the Administration for Children and Families’ Administration for Native Americans awarded USD 20 million in grants to preserve and maintain Native American languages. 

Indigenous language service provision may be a niche, but let this be our advice to you: public and private investment into this sector has already begun, and we can expect this segment to grow as preservation efforts and language access laws around the world improve. Dipping a toe in the water now is essential for LSPs that want to be ahead of the competition when this takes off. Do your due diligence to understand this market and its challenges, start cultivating relationships with indigenous linguists, and get excited about both the business potential and the difference you can make in the world. 

For more information…

Nimdzi acknowledges that there are genuine challenges for LSPs when it comes to providing services for vulnerable languages. With that in mind, we have compiled a selection of associations that may be able to offer resources and support. Some are global associations that support indigenous language preservation and indigenous communities more generally, and other organizations are dedicated to the indigenous communities in their local regions.

Hannah Leske Nimdzi Insights

This article was prepared by Nimdzi's Localization Researcher, Hannah Leske. If you wish to learn more, reach out to Hannah at [email protected].

13 December 2022

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