Languages dying out quickly worldwide

WASHINGTON — When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there’s still no one to talk to.

Native Australian Charlie Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction.

Languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday, and Washington state is in one of the hot zones.

While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.

Spots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society.

Many native languages are endangered in the area including Washington, Oregon and British Columbia; northern Australia; eastern Siberia; Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest; and in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.

In the Northwest Pacific Plateau, which includes Washington, 54 languages are endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is older than 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

Losing languages means losing knowledge, says David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

“When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.

That means, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind, he said.

Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory Anderson analyzed the top regions for disappearing languages.

Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, realizing that other, more widely spoken languages are more useful.

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