What Are the Top Ten Endangered and Extinct Languages?

While many languages are thriving in today’s society, others are dying.

UNESCO reports that around 43% of the world’s languages are endangered. UNESCO measures how endangered a language is by this scale:

  • Vulnerable: When most people speak the language, but it is used mostly at home and not out in public.
  • Definitely Endangered: When kids are no longer learning the language as their first, even inside the home.
  • Severely Endangered: It’s spoken by older adults, and younger adults might understand what they say, but they do not use the language themselves.
  • Critically Endangered: Only people who are in the grandparent generation use the language. Everyone else only knows a little bit of it.
  • Extinct: No one speaks the language anymore.

Here are ten interesting endangered or extinct languages that may shock you:

  • Yiddish: There are around 20 languages that are considered “Jewish”, and Yiddish is one of them. Yiddish devastatingly declined after the Nazis killed many of the speakers. During that time, other speakers integrated into other communities when they fled their communities, and picked up new languages. It is considered definitely endangered, but some of the Hassidic community members are working to keep the language alive by learning and teaching it. There are a reported 1.5 – 2 million speakers of Yiddish depending on the source.
  • Irish (Gaelic): Less than 2% of anyone in Ireland speaks the first official language of their homeland outside of school. The language saw a steady decline when there was famine, massive immigration, and suppression by the British in the 19th century. Thankfully, Irish is spoken as a second language by a lot of people living in the country. It’s also heavily taught in school. This means Irish is definitely endangered. Some argue it is taken on more popularity in the past few decades. 1.77 people say they are able to speak the language.
  • Scottish (Scots Gaelic): Right next door to Ireland, Scottish is also definitely endangered. It’s spoken in Scotland, but there are a few speakers of the language in Canada. Both of these places are heavily integrating Scottish into their schools so students can retain it. There are anywhere from 20,000 – 60,000 speakers depending on the source.
  • Hawaiian: The Hawaiian language was very close to becoming extinct only a few decades ago. In 1985, only 32 children on the islands knew it. They decided to teach their children the language and put it in the educational system. It is now believed to be vulnerable, but growing in popularity on the islands every day as native Hawaiians use it in their homes and around their loved ones.
  • Manchu: This was the language of the last imperial dynasty in China. The Atlantic reports there are less than two dozen people who speak the language, though there are ten million ethnic Manchus around the world. It’s critically endangered.
  •  Kusunda: The BBC calls Kusunda a mystery language of Nepal. In 2012, there was only one woman who could speak it fluently, according to one of their articles. The Kusunda people are nomads and are an endangered tribe themselves. The BBC article says the tribe currently speaks Nepali as their first language, so Kusunda is considered critically endangered.
  • N|uu: N|uu is considered Africa’s first language, and there’s only one family that speaks it fluently. The BBC reports that the language is spoken by the San community in South Africa, making it critically endangered. One of the family members is working to teach local children the language in hopes that it will one day thrive again.
  • Quileute: This is one of the hundreds of Native American languages that were lost due to the European conquests and suppression of the native communities throughout American history. The Quileute tribe was pushed into the pop culture sphere when the popular series Twilight centered around them. But what readers don’t know is that the Quileute language was used by the Quileute and Makah Native Americans on the Olympic Peninsula. It was spoken until the end of the 20th century, but there are no longer any remaining speakers. So, it is considered extinct. There are reports that the Quileute tribe is trying to teach their kids the language through school lessons to revive the language, like so many tribes in North America.
  • Yagan: Yagan only has one native speaker left. It’s a Chilean language. There are some people who are familiar with it, but they do not speak the language regularly, so it’s critically endangered. South American indigenous languages suffered the same fate as many North American ones. Many similar languages to Yagan are lost in history.
  • Latin: Of course we had to include Latin in this list. It is known as “the dead language”, but we still continue to learn and use it in certain circumstances, so many scholars believe it is not dead at all. Latin began to decline in the sixth century, but it was used to develop other languages like Italian, French, Spanish, and even English.

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