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10 Foreign Languages That Could Go Extinct in a Few Decades

by Yesica
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

When most of us set out to learn a new language, our biggest worries are usually how to conjugate verbs and construct a proper sentence. The last concern on our mind is that the language will disappear entirely!

However, perhaps that concern should be a bit higher up on our priorities list. Thanks to digitization, some once-common languages are quickly dying out. Here are ten foreign languages that could go extinct in a few decades if we don’t act fast to save them.

Related: 10 Extraordinary Languages That Do Not Involve Speaking

10 Te Reo Māori

New Zealand’s government wants Maori language classes to be available in all primary schools by 2025

Te Reo Māori is the language spoken by the Māori, the indigenous people in New Zealand. The Māori people are of Polynesian descent and emigrated to New Zealand a thousand years ago, sometime between 1200 and 1300.

However, despite being the first to arrive in Aotearoa, these people have undergone discrimination for years. In fact, up until the 1980s, the Te Reo language, along with just about anything that had to do with Māori culture, was banned. Speaking the language could get you in serious trouble, and since this was back in the day when switching was allowed in school, suffice it to say most people steered clear of speaking it.

The result is that the language has begun to die out, with some experts saying that if we don’t act fast, the language could be extinct by 2100. Thankfully, New Zealand’s legislators have made a push in recent years to restore the language, introducing it into the school curriculum and normalizing its use to preserve the nation’s unique indigenous culture.[1]

9 Nam Trik

WIKITONGUES: Daniel speaking Nam Trik

Nam Trik might be a bit more obscure than Te Reo Māori, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less at risk of extinction! This language is spoken by the indigenous Misak people in the Colombian Andes and is also sometimes called Guambiano.

This language is a Barbacoan language, which is a group of six different languages that are spoken in Southern Colombia and Northern Ecuador.

Unfortunately, today there are only a few thousand speakers of the language, with Spanish named the national language of both countries, replacing the indigenous Nam Trik. This is partly due to a lack of government efforts to preserve the language but is also due to a lack of generational inheritance of the language.

With the majority of young Misak people understanding Nam Trik but not speaking it, this language is likely to be gone within this lifetime. [2]

8 Yiddish

A Native Yiddish Speaker from Vilna’s Thoughts on the Future of Yiddish

Probably one of the more shocking languages on this list is Yiddish, a language that originated in Israel and is primarily spoken in Jewish communities. This language also incorporates a rich culture that preserves the Jewish way of life.

However, despite the unique culture surrounding Yiddish, this language is quickly on the decline. The main reason behind this decline stemmed from the Holocaust during WWII, which involved the genocide of millions of Jewish people in Europe. The widespread use of the language shrunk with the loss of many of its speakers.

Despite the fact that the language was nearly wiped out during this dark time in Europe, Yiddish is still hanging on by a thread. Jewish communities in places like New York and Israel are starting to see a comeback of the language, making a point of teaching it to young people. Hopefully, these efforts can get this language off the endangered list and back into good standing.[3]

7 Icelandic

The Icelandic Language “digital extinction” ?

Icelandic is a language that’s been fighting extinction for years. Thanks to the digital era, many young Icelanders grow up learning English from TV shows, internet forums, and video games. On top of that, many of them are incorporating more and more English words into their speech, completely eliminating the use of once-popular Icelandic words.

Besides that, as the modern era causes new words like “computer” or “cellphone” to arise, Icelanders are incorporating these English words into their daily dialects rather than using their Icelandic counterparts.

Now, although there is an Icelandic Language Committee that helps create new Icelandic words for modern words that come up, the trouble is that people just aren’t using them. On top of that, the immigrant population in Iceland has increased to five times what it was in 2008, meaning there are more people who either don’t speak or speak limited Icelandic.

Only time will tell if the government’s efforts to prevent the language from dying out will work or if the country’s approximately 350,000 people will slowly switch to speaking English full time.[4]

6 Bavarian

Bavarian Dialect vs. Standard German

There are a number of different dialects spoken around Germany, but perhaps one of the most well-known is Bavarian. Bavarian is a language spoken in the Bavaria region of Germany, which is home to major cities like Munich, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Ingolstadt, and Augsburg.

Despite constituting all those cities and being home to roughly 12 million residents, perhaps only half of them actually speak the language.

Instead, the language that most young Germans in Bavaria are learning is “Hochdeutsch,” or standard German. This is largely thanks to schools and TV, which use standard German as the language of choice.

As with many indigenous languages and local dialects, however, local Bavarians are starting to push back against this policy. Hopefully, families will continue to use Bavarian in the home to help preserve this language and keep it from going extinct.[5]

5 Irish

Is The Irish Language Important? – Little Cinema Seachtain Na Gaeilge Vox Pop

Although Irish was added to the official language of Ireland back in 2007, Irish, also called Gaeilge, is on the way out. Today, there are estimated to be only somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Gaeilge speakers, which isn’t a whole lot when you consider the size of Ireland’s population.

As with many dying languages, much of this has to do with legislation in place in years gone by. As early as the 1300s, the United Kingdom outlawed the use of Irish among English colonists in the area or among native Irish interacting with Englishmen. Later, in the 1500s, the UK went one step further, outlawing the Irish language in Parliament.

In fact, it really wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the Irish language started making a true comeback. Today, it’s taught in schools as part of the government’s 20-year plan to bring back this key part of Irish heritage.[6]

4 Welsh

Welsh – the oldest language in Britain is decreasing (UK) – BBC Breakfast – 2nd August 2016

Much like Irish Gaelic, Welsh is another language in the UK that is rapidly on the decline and could be gone entirely if we’re not careful. And, once again, it’s thanks to Great Britain’s legislation that this language is dying out.

Although the UK didn’t start limiting the use of Welsh quite as early as they did Irish, by 1500, the government was already enacting laws that stopped Welsh from being spoken in Parliament. Just 200 years later, they took things a step further and put a stop to any language except English in courts of law.

Thankfully, back in 1967, the government recognized the language through The Welsh Language Act, which was later amended to add further support for Welsh in 1993. Today, roughly 19% of the Welsh population can speak the language. However, with the language again on the decline, this unique speech could be gone in a couple of decades.[7]

3 Greenlandic

Kalaallisut, language of Greenland – A lecture by Lenore Grenoble

If Icelandic is on the decline, it’s no surprise that Greenlandic is as well. This language is actually a mix of 20 different dialects, although Kalaallisut is the primary one.

Despite what many might think, Greenlandic is actually spoken in a few places. This is because it makes up one of the languages of the Inuit Eskimo tribes, which can be found in Alaska, Canada, and Denmark.

Even though the language is a bit farther spread than just Greenland itself, that’s not to say this language isn’t safe from extinction. With only about 57,000 people living in Greenland and not all of them speaking the language, Greenlandic could be extinct soon if we don’t work to keep the language preserved.[8]

2 Coptic

Coptic: The Final Ancient Egyptian Language

Coptic is sometimes considered a dead language, but it actually only has one foot in the grave. That’s pretty surprising, considering this language is the closest thing we have to ancient Egyptian!

You see, although Coptic isn’t spoken much in communities, Coptic is still the official language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt.

Church services in these denominations are conducted in Coptic, meaning that the parishioners need to have a general understanding to follow along. What’s more, the churches have begun offering courses in Coptic to help bring about a revival of the language. It may not become anyone’s native language, but there are several fluent speakers in Egypt today.[9]

1 Jeju

Reviving a dying language on South Korea’s Jeju island

Jeju island is often called the Hawaii of Korea. It’s a small island off the south coast of South Korea and is often used as a honeymoon destination.

While most Koreans that live and visit the island speak Korean, the island actually has its own language—Jejueo. As you might guess, this language isn’t spoken very widely, and it’s estimated that only about 5,000 speakers of it.

What’s interesting about Jeju is that it uses the same alphabet as standard Korean, but you can’t actually understand it if you speak Korean. Talk about confusing!

This language is on the decline for a number of reasons, largely due to the Jeju uprising and the Korean wars back in the mid-1900s. Since then, it’s estimated that only a small percentage of the elderly population on Jeju island and a small community in Japan speak the language. With revitalization efforts currently taking place, however, we have to wait and see if this language makes a comeback.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen