Languages aren’t just tools of communication, they’re also deeply intertwined with the cultures they’re a part of. The death of a language is often a telling sign of a culture in decline, caused by factors like conflict, imperialism, assimilation, and others. Sadly, many languages around the world are on the verge of extinction today, despite multiple community and state efforts to revive them.
10. Yiddish (Central & Eastern Europe)
Yiddish refers to the language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews living in the region spreading from Alsace in France to the Ural mountains. Developed in the 10th century among the migrating Jewish population, it’s a fusion language influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, German, Slavic, and Romance languages. Its intertwined with Jewish history in Europe, though the Holocaust resulted in the expulsion or death of about 85 percent of its speakers. Presently, only around 1.3 million speakers remain globally, prompting UNESCO to classify Yiddish as a ‘definitely endangered’ language.
Yiddish is historically and culturally linked to a cultural renaissance of arts, music, and literature within the European Jewish community before the war. While it’s threatened with extinction, it’s currently experiencing a revival among both secular and traditional Jewish communities, especially in Israel and North and South America. Despite that, the ultimate fate of Yiddish remains uncertain as of now.
9. Gaelic (Scotland)
Scottish Gaelic belongs to the Goidelic group of Celtic languages, spoken by native speakers living on the northwest coast of Scotland and the Hebrides islands. According to recent studies, it’s also one of the most endangered languages in the world, with only around 11,000 habitual speakers, primarily elderly individuals in isolated communities. Despite its visibility on public signs and official vehicles, predictions suggest that Gaelic could be extinct within a decade.
A study by the University of the Highlands and Islands says that the language is rarely spoken at home or by teenagers and young people. According to the lead author of the study, policy changes are needed to prioritize Gaelic’s restoration as an everyday language in its native communities. While current government strategies promote the use of the language in some spheres – like its efforts to provide access to Gaelic education in Scottish education institutions – they’re unable to popularize it in common, day-to-day usage.
8. Sami (North Europe)
The Sami people are a minority culture living in the far north of Europe, primarily in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, within a region commonly known as Lapland. It’s a cross-border community without a state, and the history of the culture goes as far back as 12,000 years.
The languages spoken by the Sami belong to the Finno-Ugrian family of Uralic languages, and are currently spoken by anywhere between 25,000 and 35,000 people. Categorized into West and East Sami groups, each with distinct dialects, these languages are also some of the most endangered in the world, though nine out of eleven Sami languages are still in use.
The future of these languages remains uncertain, with Akkala Sami likely extinct, Ter Sami nearly extinct, and other variants of the family on the brink of disappearance. Even the most widely spoken variant, Northern Sami, is considered endangered by UNESCO. Despite legislative efforts to preserve them, Northern Sami dominates education and official use, overshadowing other Sami languages spoken in the region.
7. Te Reo Maori (New Zealand)
Te Reo M?ori is the native language of the M?ori people of Aotearoa, commonly known as New Zealand. The language developed over many centuries and initially had no written form. With the arrival of European settlers in the 18th century, however, Te Reo M?ori went through a phase of sharp decline, as English speakers increased. Early European New Zealanders commonly learned M?ori for trade, but as the settler population grew, the language was suppressed, particularly in schools, contributing to a decline in native speakers through the 1980s.
Te Reo M?ori is now classified as endangered, with the number of native speakers steadily declining. Efforts to revive the language gained momentum in the 1980s, leading to its formal protection in 1985 and official recognition in 1987. Programs like Te Kohanga Reo and the M?ori Language Commission have played important roles in its revitalization. However, a recent study predicted a downward trajectory for the language, indicating that it won’t meet government targets by 2040 without a significant rise in learning rates.
6. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Rapa Nui is the language of the native people of the same name living on Easter Island – a Polynesian territory in the southeastern Pacific Ocean under Chilean control. Once a thriving Polynesian community, the island’s culture was severely disrupted with the first European contact in 1722. The arrival of outsiders, especially slavers, led to a sharp decline in the region’s population, combined with smallpox epidemics and a widespread loss of traditional and cultural knowledge.
Only around 10% of Rapa Nui children currently speak the language – a depressing decline from 76% around four decades ago. Because of that, the Rapa Nui language is classified as severely endangered by UNESCO. Linguistic colonization, mixed with undue influence by Chilean authorities, has effectively marginalized the Rapa Nui culture within their own territory, as the Spanish language became dominant in daily life. Initiatives to revive the language have faced numerous challenges, including a lack of qualified teachers, limited resources, and difficulties in adapting the traditional tongue to modern concepts.
5. Ainu (Japan)
The Ainu language is spoken by the Ainu people of northern Japan, historically living in Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, and parts of the Russian Far East. With a unique linguistic and cultural heritage, the Ainu language is recognized as a language isolate – a language unrelated to any other known language. Over time, the Ainu people went through cultural assimilation and discrimination by the Japanese authorities, which ultimately contributed to the decline of their language. According to estimates, only a handful of elderly speakers remain, making Ainu a critically endangered language.
There have been many efforts to preserve the Ainu language through educational initiatives and cultural revitalization programs in the past few years. In 2019, Japan officially recognized the Ainu as an indigenous culture. Various organizations and institutions are working on documentation, language classes, and community engagement projects to revive the language.
4. Picard (France)
Picard is an Indo-European language primarily spoken in northernmost France and parts of the Hainaut department in Belgium. It belongs to the Romance group of languages, and is also known by various other names like Picardy and Ch’ti, or Ch’timi. In 1998, it had around 700,000 native speakers, mainly elderly individuals aged 65 and over. Picard has since been designated critically endangered by UNESCO, as the language has been in steady decline in usage throughout the past few decades.
There has been some research in the Hauts-de-France to explore the social perception of the language. It found that despite generally positive or mixed attitudes towards Picard, respondents were reluctant to use it in domains where French is prevalent.
3. Jeju (Korea)
Despite being considered a dialect of Korean by mainland Korean governments, the Jejuan language from Jeju Island was designated endangered by UNESCO in 2010. Currently, it has fewer than 10,000 native speakers, mainly among people aged 75 and older. The language is distinct from Korean, with its own vocabulary and grammar, much like the distinct culture of Jeju Island.
Efforts to revitalize Jejuan have been insufficient, however, as most young people on Jeju Island are bilingual and prefer Korean for educational purposes. While it’s still spoken in intimate settings and markets, the language is gradually fading from daily use.
Preservation efforts by Jeju’s provincial government include a revitalization budget of 43 million won, after-school programs, cultural festivals, and even a smartphone app.
2. Ladino (Israel)
Ladino is a language spoken by Sephardic Jews, and is considered to be distinct from Hebrew and Yiddish by linguistic experts. Originating after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Ladino is a blend of Castilian Spanish and Hebrew, and includes elements of Arabic, Greek, Turkish, and French. While once a thriving and widely-spoken tongue, it now faces extinction, as UNESCO has designated it a severely endangered language.
About 200,000 Ladino speakers remain in Israel, though most of them are older adults, as it’s hardly popular among the younger generations. Many historical factors could be attributed to the language’s current decline, including the Holocaust, European pogroms in the middle and early modern eras, post-war assimilation, and nationalist movements of the 20th century.
Efforts to preserve Ladino include UCLA’s ucLADINO student organization, which continues to host workshops and events to revive it among the younger generation. While the language is in decline, Sephardic Judaism is still a thriving culture, thanks to family ties, religious practices, and cultural traditions.
1. Itelmen (Russia)
Itelmen belongs to the Chukotko-Kamchatkan family of languages primarily spoken in the remote Kamchatka region of Siberia. According to estimates from 2013, only 10 elders in the community of 3,000 people can converse in it, making it one of the most endangered languages in the world.
Over the centuries, the Itelmen language – also sometimes called It?nm?n – has survived multiple historical challenges like Christianization, Sovietization, and pandemics. Despite being classified as a language isolate – a language with no relatives – Itelmen is known for its melodic nature, which is clear from its use in the traditional songs and dances of the region.
There have been many efforts to revitalize the severely-endangered language, especially at institutions like the Kovran School and community spaces like the Kovran House of Culture and the Kamchatka Regional Scientific Library. Collaborative projects with international linguists and anthropologists continue to document, preserve, and revive the language.