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What Is An Endangered Language?

A language becomes endangered when people stop using it. “Endangered” means that few people speak the language. If everyone stops using the language, it becomes extinct.

Usually, people don’t choose to give up their language. We want to share our traditions, stories, and songs with our children. Language is deeply connected to culture.

Sometimes, though, people are forced to use a new language.

One example is the residential school system in America, Canada, and Australia. Indigenous children were taken away from their families and sent to English-only schools. There, they were beaten for speaking their own languages. When those children grew up, many had forgotten their native languages completely. Others taught their children only English to protect them. The indigenous languages of America, Canada, and Australia are now very endangered.

Linguists (people who study language) have several ways to determine whether a language is endangered or not. One of those is the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale, or EGIDS. EGIDS sorts languages into 13 categories, from “0 – International” to “10 – Extinct,” based on how widely the language is used and how frequently children learn the language. The more common it is for children to use a language, the more secure that language will be. Here is a summary of the 13 EGIDS levels:

As EGIDS shows, the most important factor for language survival isn’t the absolute number of speakers. Instead, what matters is whether or not children are learning the language. And the best part? The scale works in both directions. Although over 3000 of the world’s 7000 languages are endangered, many can be saved if younger generations learn them. Around the world, communities are working to learn and teach their languages. At 7000 Languages, we provide technology and training to those communities to help their projects succeed.

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