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471 Languages Around the World Endangered, says Journal - 2003-05-21

A new study published in the journal Nature concludes hundreds of the world's languages are today spoken by only a handful people. Many of these languages are unlikely to survive.

Experts say 471 languages are nearly extinct. They include Bung, spoken by three people in Cameroon, and Abaga, the language of five fluent speakers in Papua New Guinea.

South African scholar Anthony Traill is a specialist in the 30 Khosian languages of southern Africa, in which speakers use a distinctive clicking sound. Only 2,000-3,000 people in the world speak Kw 'awe, a Khosian language of southwestern Botswana, demonstrated here by Professor Traill.

In general, Professor Traill said few people experiencing language loss appear concerned. "These people are frequently bilingual, in more than one language. And the fact that the original language from which they are moving is now shrinking and shrinking may not strike them as particularly important as they change their lifestyles and adapt to the languages of their new environment," he said.

Professor Traill notes that most shrinking languages belong to hunter-gatherer groups that have been overtaken by the dominant culture. Many fading languages are those spoken by native peoples of the Americas.

The author of the Nature study, ecologist William Sutherland, of the University of East Anglia in Britain, did an inventory of the world's languages. He found 46 languages in which there is only one speaker, in a sea of 6,800 living languages around the world.

To determine which languages are endangered, Professor Sutherland applied a standard biological tool normally used for finding out which rare birds and mammals are threatened with extinction. "It depends very much how many individuals there are and whether or not it is declining. So, obviously, if something is very scarce, it is much more likely to go extinct than if it is common. If something is declining, it is much more likely to go extinct than if it is not declining," Mr. Sutherland said.

It turns out that languages are significantly more endangered than animal species.

When asked, if he is the only speaker of particular language, and wouldn't that be kind of lonely, Mr. Sutherland responded, "Yeah, I am sure it is. I am sure there are some very tragic descriptions of people being in that position, and I am sure it must be pretty awful. There is a nice story I heard of in Namibia where there is someone who thought she was the only speaker of that language. And then they found someone else, and managed to set up a radio contact on a regular basis so they could keep in touch and hear someone else speaking their mother tongue."

Professor Sutherland found there is more language diversity in lush countries with remote mountainous regions than in northern Africa, which is dry. But he says a place with many languages does not affect whether a tongue is threatened.

Mr. Sutherland adds that unlike a dwindling number of plants and animals, many endangered tongues have written alphabets, which provide a reliable record of whether a language is becoming extinct.