- 1. Preamble
1.1. The Present Situation
At this point in human history, most human languages are spoken by
exceedingly few people. And that majority, the majority of
languages, is about to vanish.
The most authoritative source on the languages of the world
(Ethnologue, Grimes 1996) lists just over 6,500 living languages.
Population figures are available for just over 6,000 of them (or
92%). Of these 6,000, it may be noted that:
52% are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people;
28% by fewer than 1,000; and
83% are restricted to single countries, and so are particularly
exposed to the policies of a single government.
At the other end of the scale, 10 major languages, each spoken by
over 109 million people, are the mother tongues of almost half (49%)
of the world's population.
More important than this snapshot of proportions and populations is
the outlook for survival of the languages we have. Hard comparable
data here are scarce or absent, often because of the sheer variety
of the human condition: a small community, isolated or bilingual,
may continue for centuries to speak a unique language, while in
another place a populous language may for social or political
reasons die out in little more than a generation. Another reason is
that the period in which records have been kept is too short to
document a trend: e.g. the Ethnologue has been issued only since
1951. However, it is difficult to imagine many communities
sustaining serious daily use of a language for even a generation
with fewer than 100 speakers: yet at least 10% of the world's living
languages are now in this position.
Some of the forces which make for language loss are clear: the
impacts of urbanization, Westernization and global communications
grow daily, all serving to diminish the self-sufficiency and self-
confidence of small and traditional communities. Discriminatory
policies, and population movments also take their toll of languages.
In our era, the preponderance of tiny language communities means
that the majority of the world's languages are vulnerable not just
to decline but to extinction.
1.2. The Likely Prospect
There is agreement among linguists who have considered the situation
that over half of the world's languages are moribund, i.e. not
effectively being passed on to the next generation. We and our
children, then, are living at the point in human history where,
within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die
This mass extinction of languages may not appear immediately life-
threatening. Some will feel that a reduction in numbers of languages
will ease communication, and perhaps help build nations, even global
solidarity. But it has been well pointed out that the success of
humanity in colonizing the planet has been due to our ability to
develop cultures suited for survival in a variety of environments.
These cultures have everywhere been transmitted by languages, in
oral traditions and latterly in written literatures. So when
language transmission itself breaks down, especially before the
advent of literacy in a culture, there is always a large loss of
Valued or not, that knowledge is lost, and humanity is the poorer.
Along with it may go a large part of the pride and self-identity of
the community of former speakers.
And there is another kind of loss, of a different type of knowledge.
As each language dies, science, in linguistics, anthropology,
prehistory and psychology, loses one more precious source of data,
one more of the diverse and unique ways that the human mind can
express itself through a language's structure and vocabulary.
We cannot now assess the full effect of the massive simplification
of the world's linguistic diversity now occurring. But language
loss, when it occurs, is sheer loss, irreversible and not in itself
creative. Speakers of an endangered language may well resist the
extinction of their traditions, and of their linguistic identity.
They have every right to do so. And we, as scientists, or concerned
human beings, will applaud them in trying to preserve part of the
diversity which is one of our greatest strengths and treasures.
1.3. The Need for an Organization
We cannot stem the global forces which are at the root of language
decline and loss.
But we can work to lessen the ignorance which sees language loss as
inevitable when it is not, and does not properly value all that will
go when a language itself vanishes.
We can work to see technological developments, such as computing and
telecommunications, used to support small communities and their
traditions rather than to supplant them.
And we can work to lessen the damage:
by recording as much as possible of the languages of communities
which seem to be in terminal decline;
by emphasizing particular benefits of the diversity still remaining;
by promoting literacy and language maintenance programmes, to
increase the strength and morale of the users of languages in
In order to further these aims, there is a need for an autonomous
international organization which is not constrained or influenced by
matters of race, politics, gender or religion. This organization
will recognise in language issues the principles of self-
determination, and group and individual rights. It will pay due
regard to economic, social, cultural, community and humanitarian
considerations. Although it may work with any international,
regional or local Authority, it will retain its independence
throughout. Membership will be open to those in all walks of life.
2. Aims and Objectives
The Foundation for Endangered Languages exists to support, enable
and assist the documentation, protection and promotion of endangered
languages. In order to do this, it aims:-
(i) To raise awareness of endangered languages, both inside and
outside the communities where they are spoken, through all channels
(ii) To support the use of endangered languages in all contexts: at
home, in education, in the media, and in social, cultural and
(iii) To monitor linguistic policies and practices, and to seek to
influence the appropriate authorities where necessary;
(iv) To support the documentation of endangered languages, by
offering financial assistance, training, or facilities for the
publication of results;
(v) To collect together and make available information of use in the
preservation of endangered languages;
(vi) To disseminate information on all of the above activities as
widely as possible.