According to the United Nations, every two weeks one spoken tongue dies out. Fourteen days… Poof! Fourteen days… Poof! Fourteen days… Poof! They vanish; one after another. But this doesn’t happen just like that. Before a language disappears from the face of the earth, it usually shows signs of endangerment; it “makes the list”, so to speak.
You are probably wondering what list I am talking about. The endangered languages list. Believe it or not, it does exist. “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” is regularly published by United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). And the statistics it presents are terrifying.
The total number of tongues threatened by extinction in the Pacific region is over 200. The undisputed leader is Papua New Guinea – 98 of the country’s languages are officially recognized as endangered, with many listed as already extinct. A similar situation can be observed in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, where, respectively, 46 and 17 languages are imperiled (some of them no longer extant). In New Caledonia only one indigenous tongue (Sishee) has fallen out of use, but 15 are still at risk of disappearing.
And what about the rest of the region? There are 13 threatened languages in the Federated States of Micronesia. One of them is Kosraean, the native tongue of the Kosrae State, which is believed to be severely endangered. French Polynesia and the Cook Islands share the same number of languages “in trouble” – four. Nearly all are either definitely or severely endangered; merely one has the status of vulnerable.
The sun seems to shine a little – just a little – brighter in Palau and Fiji. In the former there are two tongues facing extinction (Sonsorol and Tobian) and in the latter – just one (Rotuman).
You may be surprised to find out that the Hawaiian language is also severely endangered. Although it is one of the official languages of the Aloha state, the number of its speakers has been rapidly decreasing. English and Hawaiian Pidgin are people’s first choices, both at home and outside of it.
An especially sad case is that of the small island states, like Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Nauru, and Guam. In each of these countries only one language has made the list – the nation’s national language. Tokelauan is considered severely endangered; Tuvaluan, Nauruan, and Niuean – definitely endangered; Chamorro – vulnerable. If these tongues vanish, Tuvaluans, Tokelauans, Niueans, Nauruans, and Chamorros will lose a part of their identity. They will lose a sense of belonging and that special connection with the land of their ancestors.
Now, I am telling you all about the imperiled languages in Oceania, but I haven’t explained the basic terms you should know. First of all, how does one define an endangered tongue? Let me cite the definition given by UNESCO: “A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation.” As you have already probably noticed, there are several degrees of endangerment, which were established in the document entitled “Language Vitality and Endangerment”:
- Safe – language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted
- Vulnerable – most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)
- Definitely endangered – children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home
- Severely endangered – language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
- Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequent
- Extinct – there are no speakers left
This classification by UNESCO is not the only grouping of endangered languages available. SIL International, a non-profit organization and the publisher of “Ethnologue”, has its own, and it differs from the one presented above.
But whatever the classification, one thing is certain: the statistics are looking grim. We can’t deny the data – the world has been losing its languages at an alarming rate. The Pacific region is especially affected. If something won’t get done today, the Islanders will soon be exchanging “Hellos” and “Bonjours” instead of “Talofas” or “Hafa Adais”.