What is an endangered language?

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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:

Level Label Description
0 International The language is widely used between nations in trade, knowledge exchange, and international policy.
1 National The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government at the national level.
2 Provincial The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government within major administrative subdivisions of a nation.
3 Wider Communication The language is used in work and mass media without official status to transcend language differences across a region.
4 Educational The language is in vigorous use, with standardization and literature being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported education.
5 Developing The language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable.
6a Vigorous The language is used for face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable.
6b Threatened The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users.
7 Shifting The child-bearing generation can use the language among themselves, but it is not being transmitted to children.
8a Moribund The only remaining active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation and older.
8b Nearly Extinct The only remaining users of the language are members of the grandparent generation or older who have little opportunity to use the language.
9 Dormant The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency.
10 Extinct The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.

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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