You may be surprised to know that there are currently approximately 7,000 different languages spoken worldwide. But that may not always be the case.
Languages are extremely fluid. Not only do they change and evolve over time, but they also can eventually die out altogether. In fact, some experts believe that nearly half of the languages in existence today will die by the end of this century. The reason? In this day and age of globalization, some languages are predominantly used more than others. Those languages become the “standard.” This is most notably true with English, but there are other languages as well – such as Spanish, French, and Chinese, for example — that will in all likelihood remain alive and commonly used on the Internet and in other forms of communication. There may be 7,000 languages currently in existence, but nearly half of the world’s population claim one of a mere 20 or so languages as their native tongue. Other languages that are spoken by fewer people and not commonly used on the Internet or other electronic media are dying at an alarming rate – about one every four months on average.
Globalization is only one reason why languages die. There are other factors as well, such as:
Historically, people migrating from one region to another have severely impacted language, and today is no different. Consider modern-day Germany, for example, where a huge influx of immigrants whose native tongues are Turkish and Arabic have brought about significant changes in how many young Germans speak their language. Rather than standard German, the end result is an unusual iteration of German that is heavily influenced by both Turkish and Arabic. If this trend were to continue, standard German as we know it today might cease to exist altogether.
Sometimes languages die because of cultural changes. The most obvious and immediate example of this lies within the US, where indigenous people were overtaken by settlers in the 19th century, and eventually moved to reservations. There, they were forced to change their cultural norms and often forbidden to speak their native tongues. As a result, many Native American languages rank high on the list of “endangered languages” that could very well die out altogether in the not-too-distant future.
Another common reason for the death of a language is the death of the population that spoke it. This sad circumstance can be due to a variety of reasons – genocide, disease, or natural disaster, just to name a few.
Some linguists have taken on the task of documenting dying languages before the last speakers pass away and the language is lost forever. This is, without a doubt, a valuable and noble effort. But with the number of languages currently spoken and the rate at which they are dying, this will be a challenging task, to say the least.