Dead languages

November 1, 2018 10:30 am



Whilst there may be more than 7,000 different living languages across the world, it has been predicted that by the end of the century, more than half will be extinct, according to UNESCO. However, what are the reasons for this, which languages are poised to disappear, and what is being done to try to keep these languages alive? We take a look.

Why are some languages under threat?

There are a multitude of reasons as to why languages can risk extinction, such as from the effects of globalisation, stigmatisation, natural disasters and genocide. Take for example in the late 1800s in the United States and the impact on Hawaiian language after the US backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. After this had occurred, the language became banned at schools, and speaking it could lead you to being punished. The situation worsened over the 20th century, with a stigma permeating the language leading to a steep decline of the Hawaiian speaking communities. Today, it is estimated that there are less than 300 native speakers worldwide, mostly on the islands of Ni’hau and Kaua’i.

Which languages could disappear or have become extinct already?


The aboriginal Taiwanese language is now extinct after the very last person who spoke it, Pan Jin-yu died in 2010, despite her best efforts to preserve it, giving lessons to over 200 students.



This Malaysian language was only discovered this year by accident, when researchers from Sweden who were in a Malay Peninsula village studying the Jahai language from the region soon discovered that a number of people were using grammar and vocabulary different from other locals. It is believed that just 280 people in the village speak the language.



According to the 2016 census, there are just four female elderly aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory who speak this language, also known as Waliburu and Galawa.


Vod is the language spoken by the Votics, who moved to Finland in 1943 after being deported from the Soviet Union. It is also known as Votish, Vote, Votian and Votic and it is estimated that just eight native speakers of Vod in 2017.


The Amazonian language became extinct in 2016 after the last female speaker, Rose Andrade Ocagane, was murdered in Peru.

Are languages being saved?

There are a number of different attempts being made to save endangered languages. Take for example Duolingo, who has recently announced that it will be giving its customers the option to learn both Navajo and Hawaiian, both at risk when it comes to their long-term survival. It is hoped that the launch will have similar success to the introduction of the Irish language as a course on the app back in 2014, which now has more than 4 million people who are learning the language, which had just 100,000 native speakers.



  • Steinmetz, K. 2018. One of the world’s 7,000 languages dies every three months. Can apps help save them? [online: here], retrieved on 23/10/2018.
  • Lailberte, M.  2018. The 15 languages that could soon be extinct [online: here], retrieved on 23/10/2018.
  • Westerman, K. 2018. Drops language-learning app will be the first to offer Hawaiian, an endangered language? [online: here], retrieved on 23/10/2018.


Written by Mairead Finlay – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She has studied Translation at the University of Geneva and holds a BA in Politics and French from the University of Bristol.




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