Did you know there are over 7,000 languages in existence around the world? Sadly, it’s estimated that around half of these will be extinct by the turn of the century. National Geographic notes that every two weeks, a language dies along with its last speaker, and a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining. Here’s a look at five of these languages that are in danger of going extinct.
Wukchumni is a Native American language, and there is only one native speaker left, Marie Wilcox. When she passes away, the language will be declared extinct. To help keep the Wukchumni language alive, Wilcox has spent over seven years working on a dictionary with the help of her family. It wasn't until recently that the Wukchumni tribe began to write their language down, a common theme with many Native American tribes.
The Wukchumni tribe was not recognized by the federal government but instead were included as part of the larger Yokuts tribe. It’s estimated that there were at least 50,000 Yokuts tribe members at one point, with less than 200 remaining today.
The Ainu originated in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture. Because the Ainu were declared to be Japanese under the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act of 1899, they were banned from partaking in Ainu cultural and religious activities, which meant they were prohibited from speaking their language as well. It’s estimated that there could be as many as 24,000 Ainu living in different parts of the country today, some of whom may deny their roots due to fears of discrimination.
In 2008, Japan finally recognized the Ainu as indigenous people, but the language remains critically endangered. It’s estimated that fewer than five native speakers exist worldwide.
Resígaro is a language with only one surviving native speaker. After his sister, Rosa Andrade Ocagane, was mysteriously murdered in 2016, Pablo Andrade became the sole native speaker of the language left.
It’s estimated that there were close to 40 Resígaro speakers just over a decade ago. However, they all married into the larger tribe and gave up speaking Resígaro. For the last several years, Andrade has been working on a project to document his dying Resígaro language in hopes of preservation.
Jedek is a language spoken by residents of a small village along the Malay Peninsula. What’s fascinating about the Jedek language is that it was only recently discovered and officially named. In 2017, Swedish linguists were in the area studying the Jahai language and recognized that the grammar, sounds and vocabulary spoken here in this village were different. It is estimated that around 280 people speak Jedek.
You might be wondering why the language is endangered if it was just discovered. Jedek is classified as one of the region’s Aslian languages, made up of about 14 groups of aboriginal tribes that total around 50,000 speakers. All of them are facing extinction because younger generations are preferring to speak Malay, forgoing their native dialects like Jedek.
Karaim is a Turkic language that originated with a Jewish group on the Crimean Peninsula. It is spoken in limited parts of Ukraine and Lithuania. After the post-war Soviet regime, political measures saw that communities were dispersed, which has led to the language becoming critically endangered. It’s estimated there are only around 200 Karaim left in Lithuania, and only a fourth of them still can communicate competently. Most other people, especially younger generations, speak dominant languages like Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian.