The Tailenders

PBS Premiere: July 25, 2006Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview: Dr. Peter Ladefoged on Endangered Languages

Adele Horne: How many languages are there in the world?

Peter Ladefoged: There are about a little less than 7,000 languages in the world, and about 28 percent of all languages are spoken by groups of less than 1,000 speakers.

Horne: Can you talk a little bit about endangered languages?

Ladefoged: A language is endangered when it's no longer spoken in the home, in which case it rapidly fades away. Languages with under 1,000 speakers tend not to be spoken at home, simply because all those 1,000 or so people will speak other languages as well. Bilingualism is a very common thing and there are very few places in the world where you just have people who can only speak the one language and who only speak to their immediate neighbors.

Horne: Can you talk a little bit about what it means for a language to be moribund?

Ladefoged: We say that a language is moribund when it's no longer spoken, as native speakers, by children. When the only speakers are all the elderly people who are just dying off, the language is going to die unless something drastic comes along and makes a change in circumstance.

Horne: Could you give any sense about how many languages in the world might disappear?

Ladefoged: People have tried to estimate how many are going to disappear over the next hundred years. My personal guess is that about half the languages that are spoken today won't be spoken in 100 years time. Other people have given more drastic guesses and say that far fewer than half those languages will survive.

Horne: Is there an acceleration in the number of languages disappearing?

Ladefoged: There's certainly an acceleration in the rate at which languages are disappearing, simply because we're all becoming much more like one global village. There are still large pockets of groups of people who don't have contact with some other major language, but they are diminishing, and their languages are therefore severely threatened.

Horne: What are the forces that cause language endangerment?

Ladefoged: Languages cease being spoken largely because of the influence of the surrounding larger languages. So if you're a small group, and you're surrounded by other people and you trade with them, or you work with them, then you learn this other language. Your children, if you're lucky, go to school, and they go to school not in your own language, which is a small one, but in the language of the larger group, and your children start speaking that other language. Now, you speak a little of this new language because you have to get along in the world, and your children speak it. Your old language soon ceases being the language of the home. Once a language is no longer the language of the home -- in a literal sense, the mother's tongue -- then the language is pretty well doomed, unless extraordinary things happen to save it.

Horne: How might the GRN recordings of different languages be valuable to a linguist?

Ladefoged: The recordings may be valuable to people studying linguistics, but perhaps not quite as much as one might expect. If you're studying a language linguistically, you've got to know something about it, including exactly what's been said in the recording.

For a linguist listening to a gospel story, the recording can be very useful provided that one's knowledge of the language is fluent enough that one can actually translate the story, and figure out -- word for word -- what each word means. Then he can figure out how the sentence structure is, how adjectives are used, how nouns are used, and so on.

But the GRN recordings exist without a written text. If you don't have a written, translated text of the language, then a linguist is less likely to find the recording useful.

Horne: Can you talk a little bit about the history of disappearing languages?

Ladefoged: People have observed languages disappearing for hundreds of years, probably more; languages are always coming and going. After all, think of Latin. Latin disappeared completely. And English wasn't spoken until 1,200 years ago. So if you go back 1,500 years ago, there's no language such as English at all. English has come in, Latin has gone out. Languages do that. People have been observing this and known this for a long time.

Horne: Are there any examples of languages which started to disappear, and then were revived through the efforts of their speakers?

Ladefoged: The Gaelic of Ireland is one example. When Ireland became an independent nation separate from the rest of Britain, they were very keen to restore Gaelic as one of their national languages. They took the effort very seriously, and had lots of education in Gaelic. I'm not up on the latest figures, but I understand that although a great deal of government money and effort is going into the revival of Gaelic, it's certainly not spoken by the entire population of the island.

Hebrew is an example of a language that has been successfully revived. The immigrant population that went to Israel didn't originally speak Hebrew, but now most of them do. So Hebrew is revived; now it's a living language. Gaelic and Hebrew are two examples where living languages have come back, but they're pretty rare.

There's some interesting work going on in Hawaii at the moment. The Hawaiians are very conscious of their difference from the mainland population: they don't like being swamped by mainlanders, and they want to retain their identity and their language, which is also called Hawaiian. Hawaiian has been and still is spoken by a very small group on one of the smaller islands, which are off limits to general tourists, but the main Hawaiian islands are now also beginning to learn to speak Hawaiian again. They even have Hawaiian immersion schools.

I was in Hawaii recently, buying something in a store, and a guy in the store was listening to a Hawaiian tune on the radio. I asked, "Do you speak Hawaiian?" He said, "No, but my daughter does. She's in a Hawaiian immersion school and she's learning it. And I'm beginning to speak it too. It's nice to be a Hawaiian person again."

So, Hawaiian is on its way to being restored. But the other side of the story is whether the Hawaiian that's being taught is the same as the Hawaiian that's spoken by the remnant population that has always spoken it as a native language. The answer is no. The language that's being taught is a different dialect of Hawaiian. But of course languages are diverging and changing into different dialects all the time.

Horne: Why are those specific languages being revived?

Ladefoged: If we want to consider why these languages are being revived and what's behind it all, we see that in nearly every case it's political in some sense. Obviously, the efforts to revive Irish and Hebrew are tied to political movements. The revival of Hawaiian can also be thought of as part of a political movement; it's people wanting to say, "Hey, we are different, and we want to show that we're different." I think that's always why people start trying to revive their own language.