How To Save An Endangered Language

There’s no one way to do it. Learn about some of the creative approaches people around the world are taking to preserve endangered languages.
An endangered language represented by a pastoral scene on a sunny day in Iceland, with green grass and many colorful houses in view.

Languages are dying at an alarming rate. On average, one dies every two weeks. Of the roughly 7,000 languages still spoken today, language resource Ethnologue lists about 3,000 endangered ones. Another estimate by the Endangered Languages Project puts it at a slightly lower 2,500. Either way, that’s more than one-third of the languages spoken in the world. If things continue as they are, a huge number of languages will vanish in the coming decades as the native speakers die out and take their cultures and stories with them. This has left many people around the world asking the same question: how do we save endangered languages?

There are countless ways of answering that question. The first step for many communities is to make sure the language is preserved through documentation. We’ll never know how many languages have already disappeared from the Earth because the last speaker died with no record of how they spoke. Languages can still die even if they are documented, however. A dead language is one that no longer has any native speakers, though people might still be able to understand it (like Latin). A language that no one can understand anymore is considered extinct. So even if we record a language, that doesn’t mean it can’t be endangered.

One way to keep a language alive is by mandating its teaching in schools. This can also be a great way to ensure its continued survival via future generations, but even this isn’t always enough to maintain the vitality of a language. Grammar and vocabulary are only one aspect of a language’s life; living with a language involves so much more.

Fortunately, there are people around the world finding creative ways to revive endangered languages. Here are some of the most creative ways people are using endangered languages around the world.

Using Music

Music is a central part of our daily lives, used for entertainment, emotion, communication and more. Even if we know that, though, we might still underestimate just how important music has been to human culture. Music has documented our history and legends for the entirety of recorded history. It’s no surprise, then, that many people are using music to promote the use of endangered languages.

One example is Garifuna, a language spoken by fewer than 100,000 people in Central America, particularly Honduras. The language is spoken by the Garinagu people, an Afro-Indigenous group that formed in the 1700s after a group of West Africans arrived on St. Vincent, joining the indigenous Carib-Arawak people. They were later forced off the island by British colonial invaders, but the group has managed to survive until the present day.

The interplay of language and music have played a large role in the continued survival of the Garinagu people. This is partially accomplished by performing traditional songs and dances, like the jankunu, which was created hundreds of years ago to satirize the British colonists. Another important aspect, however, is making new music that attracts attention from people who might not have an existing interest in the language. A genre called punta rock combines traditional Garinagu drumming with a modern sound. Groups like the Garifuna Collective have toured the world to spread the word, literally.

Music alone is probably not enough to keep a language alive, but it’s a fun way to infuse creative energy into the larger goal of preservation. Garifuna is far from the only language that’s being used in music, either. Gaelic, Yiddish and countless other languages are now being performed and recorded, with both traditional and new songs. Whether it’s someone’s specific goal to promote an endangered language or a musician wanting to embrace their roots by singing songs in a language connected to their ancestry, music extends the long cultural history of these languages.

Making Movies

We’ve written before about people using movies and television to preserve languages. This includes both filming native speakers of the language in a documentary fashion and making creative scripted works. Both of these are integral to making sure languages survive into the next generations.

Movies in endangered languages are kind of having a moment, or at least they’ve garnered quite a bit of media attention over the past few years. Disney, for example, created a Hawaiian version of its animated film Moana, and distributed the film for free to schools around Hawaii to promote the endangered language. Admittedly, this is as much a marketing move as it is an act of linguistic care, but it still helps young people get excited about other languages.

More important than the occasional big-budget blockbuster is the work of small filmmakers who choose to use endangered languages in their movies. Increasingly, people are creating films that feature indigenous American languages. This itself can present a whole set of problems — ensuring the language is translated correctly, representing the culture language’s speakers accurately, working closely with the communities — but with proper care, can produce excellent works of art. 

The film SGaawaay K’uuna (“The Edge of the Knife”) used largely indigenous talent to bring the critically endangered language Haida to the screen. The language has less than 20 speakers left, and the film was spearheaded when tribal elders thought it would be a good way to get young people excited about the language. Even if films alone can’t save a language, they can revitalize a language by removing it from the classroom context and compelling viewers to consider it more deeply.

Embracing The Digital Age

The internet has been a double-edged sword for endangered languages. It’s been lauded for many because it allows people to connect from all around the world in ways that were impossible before. In this way, speakers of endangered languages are no longer limited by geography. On the flip side, the internet is overflowing with English. The majority of content online exists in just one language. If you add to that the fact that even the best translation tools tend to neglect endangered languages, the internet is perhaps not the polyglot utopia it was once envisioned to be. Even so, its influence on all languages can’t be underestimated, and young people especially are using digital spaces to innovate with endangered languages.

One language being used in this way is Icelandic. Spoken by roughly 300,000 people, almost all Icelandic speakers live in Iceland. The language has been around for hundreds of years, but has spent the past few decades on the decline. The greatest threat to the role of Icelandic is the cultural dominance of English, which has been slowly overtaking the island. This is in part to accommodate Iceland’s massive tourism industry, but the people native to the country are also running into more English in their day-to-day life, particularly when they go online.

A possible path to fight against English is entrenching Icelandic and disavowing any changes to it. It might make sense that in order to keep Icelandic relevant, it needs to be defended against outside influences. In practice, however, this has meant the language is unable to react to changes in the world. The solution, then, might be finding the right balance between preserving pure Icelandic and switching entirely to English.

On the podcast Far Flung, a group of young Icelandic speakers talk about their own experiences code-switching between English and Icelandic. The consensus was that there were certain topics that Icelandic simply didn’t have words for — talking about race and LGBTQ identities, for example — and so they find themselves resorting to English in many cases. Especially online, young people are having to adopt English slang or invent their own terms to communicate in Icelandic. While some have said this is “ruining the language” — in the same way teenagers all around the world are “ruining” their languages with slang — it’s a vital process for Icelandic. 

If a language doesn’t change at all, young people will be forced to look for alternatives to speak in a way that works for them. By embracing rather than rejecting the linguistic changes accelerated by the digital age, there’s a greater chance for these endangered languages to stay culturally strong. Reviving an endangered language isn’t something that happens overnight, and can take generations. Each new creative solution won’t work alone, but together, they can introduce countless new speakers to the rich diversity of languages spoken around the planet.

Learn a new language today.
Try Babbel