A Teacher's Guide to Endangered Languages

K. David Harrison1
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages


Approximately 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today.2 Every one of them is tied intimately to its speakers' ethnic and cultural identity. But with colonialism and globalization, smaller languages are being abandoned in favor of major ones, and languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. Some analysts say that a language is lost as often as every two weeks. Today, more than 500 languages are in immediate danger of being lost, including two featured in the film The Linguists: Chemehuevi, a Native American language of Arizona, and Chulym, a language spoken in Siberia. Two other languages featured, Kallawaya of Bolivia and Sora of India, are less endangered but face challenges.

The Linguists shows people who speak threatened languages talking about what language loss means to them, and it highlights efforts by scientists to preserve languages that are in danger of dying. This curriculum unit provides resources for teaching students that language is an essential element of culture and that the loss of a language is likely to mean the loss of culture, history, traditions, values, and social identity, as well as unique grammar patterns.

Using the film with the background information and learning activities presented here, teachers can help students understand how languages become endangered and "die," and how important it is to document and revitalize threatened languages before they vanish. These materials are intended for high school and beginning college courses. They may be used in social studies, political science, anthropology, fine arts, foreign language, and other classes that address the key questions raised in The Linguists: Why are languages dying? Does it matter? How can we save them?

Using The Linguists in the Social Studies Curriculum

The Linguists exposes students to the world's linguistic and cultural diversity, and the negative consequences of sacrificing that diversity. The Linguists relates to nine of the ten thematic strands in the National Council for the Social Studies standards.

  • Theme I. Culture

    Students will discover that language is a core element of culture: The way we express our ideas reflects our history and helps constitute our way of life.

    A worry that older speakers voice in The Linguists is that younger generations will not learn their heritage language and that this will precipitate the loss of their group's history and culture. In the film, linguists David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, who study the Chulym language of Siberia, record stories told by Chulym speakers for future generations. These stories about bear and moose hunting reflect the traditional Chulym hunter-gatherer society.

  • Theme II. Time, Continuity, and Change

    Students will understand the processes by which languages develop, diversify, change, grow, and die and how language provides insight into our past, present, and future.

    Even when there is no written record, language itself provides clues to the past and the movement of people throughout time. The Linguists points out, for example, that the Kallawaya culture dates back over 400 years, when the Kallawaya perfected their healing arts. By inventing a "secret" language, they have successfully protected and passed on these arts across a long span of time, and thus provide a glimpse into a chapter of human history that was never written down.

  • Theme III. People, Places, and Environments

    Students will learn how geography influences language change and what languages tell us about environment.

    Geography plays a role in shaping language: Areas with the greatest linguistic diversity tend to be those where scarcity of resources or geographic features such as mountainous terrain cause people to splinter into groups. An example is the mountainous country of Papua New Guinea, home to 820 languages.

    Languages provide important insight into the people, places, and environment of a region. For instance, in The Linguists video extra Archiving for Speakers and Linguists, we see we see scientists comparing two languages of the Solomon Islands. They find that words for ocean-faring technology have been borrowed.

  • Theme IV. Individual, Development, and Identity

    Students will understand how language shapes social identity and how the loss of a language affects individuals.

    Language is much more than a system for expressing thoughts, because the way we express our thoughts is connected to our way of life. In The Linguists, Nora Vasquez of the Chemehuevi Tribe says, "Language is a part of who you are, it's your breath that you breath... Without your language, you might as well be dead." Language is so important to identity that Johnny Hill, Jr., the Chemehuevi speaker in the film, still uses the language even though he has no one to speak to.

  • Theme V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

    Students will learn how institutions sometimes suppress the languages of minority groups and sometimes help preserve them.

    Languages become endangered when speakers are forced or encouraged to abandon their language. In The Linguists, we see how the institutions of boarding schools in the United States, India and Siberia had a profound effect on both the people and their languages. An important goal of language revitalization is to restore respect for languages and demonstrate that all languages can have a function in the modern world.

  • Theme VI. Power, Authority, and Governance

    Students will gain an awareness of how language rights can be protected within the context of majority rule.

    The loss of the freedom to speak your native language is the loss of a basic human right. For example, in The Linguists video extra N/u, South Africa, the N|u of South Africa were forced to abandon their language under the policy of Apartheid. Those in power can protect minority groups' rights to their heritage languages without endangering the majority language.

  • Theme VIII. Science, Technology, and Society

    Students will gain an awareness of how technology can be used for language preservation and revitalization.

    Linguists David and Greg demonstrate the use of technology to sustain small languages when they playback their video of Chulym speakers to get the speakers' commentary on their own speech. Video is valuable because it can capture important features of communication such as facial expressions, gesture, and posture.

  • Theme IX. Global Connections

    Students will understand why protecting the world's languages and cultures is essential.

    In 1996, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and other organizations signed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, which states that language is a basic human right. For more information, visit http://www.unesco.org/most/lnngo11.htm. To understand how language is considered a basic human right, please see The Linguists video extra N|u, South Africa.

  • Theme X. Civic Ideals and Practices

    Students will learn how citizens can contribute to preserving languages and cultures.

    The Linguists suggests ways that non-linguists can become involved in language revitalization projects, for example, in The Linguists video extra Reviving the Myaamia Language.

Selected Episodes

  • Siberia (Chulym language)

    The Linguists DVD Chapters 3. Chulym in Siberia; 12. Documenting; and 16. Vasya Gabov

    The linguists visit remote villages to seek out one of the most endangered languages of Siberia: Chulym. They travel to Tegul'det, a remote village, where they meet only three speakers of the language. Concerned that documenting Chulym may not be possible, David and Greg are surprised to learn that their driver, Vasya, is a native Chulym speaker. Working with him, David and Greg learn how Chulym has become endangered: Vasya says, "Chulym was viewed as a 'gutter language.'"

    David and Greg describe the methods scientists use for language documentation. They ask speakers to list words in Chulym, such as numbers, and they strive to record "every word that comes out of their mouth." The two linguists hope that their work will help counterbalance negative attitudes towards the Chulym language. Although Chulym is endangered because it is no longer passed on to children, there is hope for its future. In the final chapter on Chulym, we see community members working to sustain their language. David and Greg compile Chulym stories with Russian translations and pictures drawn by Chulym children to produce the first book ever written in the language.

  • Arizona (Chemehuevi language)

    The Linguists DVD Chapter 4. Chemehuevi in Arizona

    In 2005, the Native American language Chemehuevi had only five remaining speakers. Johnny Hill, Jr., who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, says that he can speak only to himself in Chemehuevi, since all the elders have died. In order to remember words, he listens to recordings of Chemehuevi, a practice that illustrates the important role of language documentation in preventing languages from completely falling out of use.

  • Bolivia (Kallawaya language)

    The Linguists DVD Chapters 10. Kallawaya in Bolivia through 14. Passing Down Languages

    Kallawaya is one of the most mysterious languages the linguists encounter. Considered a “secret language,” it is taught by adult males to teenaged males to endure the survival of secret healing techniques. The linguists participate in a healing ceremony and visit a medicine man who is teaching the younger generation. They marvel that Kallawaya, with an estimated 150 speakers, has been able to survive for hundreds of years as such a small language.

  • India (Sora language)

    The Linguists DVD Chapters 5. Indian Boarding School through 9. Sora Numbers; and 15. Return to Boarding School

    Sora first attracted the attention of the linguists for its ability to compact an entire complex sentence into just a single verb. In the film, the linguists visit rural Sora villages, attend a wedding, and interview speakers. They enjoy a "eureka" moment when a speaker teaches them to count by using twelves and twenties to build larger numbers.

    The linguists also visit a boarding school where Sora children study alongside members of at least 40 other indigenous groups. They find some evidence that the youngest generation of speakers is being culturally influenced by the practice of the Hindu religion and by schooling in English.

Key Ideas

  • 7,000+ languages are spoken around the world.
  • Most of the world's languages are spoken by small groups of people: approximately 85% of the world's languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers.
  • A language dies (ceases to be spoken) when there are no living native speakers. A language is endangered when only a very few, elderly native speakers remain.
  • Language is intimately connected to culture and history.
  • Language documentation consists of recording linguistic and cultural information in the community that speaks the language.
  • Language revitalization work strengthens endangered languages by fostering positive language attitudes and language teaching.

1 With assistance from Robbie Hart, Nicole Marcus, Jonathan Shea, and the Center for Applied Linguistics. The author welcomes feedback and comments at harrison@swarthmore.edu.

2 See www.ethnologue.org for the most current listing of the world's languages.