Revitalising endangered languages

July 21, 2017

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the eight most spoken are accounted for by 40 per cent of the world’s population
Languages are considered endangered when their last fluent speakers reach old age and when children are no longer learning it as their primary tongue. The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger reveals that 18 of the world’s 2,464 officially ‘endangered’ languages have just one living speaker (Bishuo, spoken in Cameroon, for instance). With the exception of just three (Patwin, Tolowa and Wintu-Nomlaki, Native American languages found in California), these are all based in the so-called ‘global south’. The Handbook of Endangered Languages acknowledges that economic, political, cultural and social power is held by those who speak the ‘majority languages’ while those that don’t are often marginalised and under pressure to shift towards learning a more ‘global’ language.


Not all people experiencing language shift feel marginalised though. Many Nigerians, for example, happily embrace the use of English as a lingua franca, viewing it as progressive. Others however, see their native language as a significant marker of ethnic and national identity. Nigerian artist Adé Bantu expressed this in his song No More No Vernacular, a critique of the Nigerian school system which prohibits children from speaking indigenous languages.

Tribalingual founder, Inky Gibbens, began her social mission to ‘save, preserve and support’ rare cultures and traditions after discovering the native language of her grandparents – Buryat, a dialect of Mongolia – was classified as ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO and finding there was no means of learning it online.

Academics suggest there are three categories of response to language endangerment: Do nothing (known as ‘benign neglect’), document languages before they disappear, or promote language revitalisation. Scholars have since considered a fourth response, which aims to examine the causes of language endangerment and promote sustainable environments for them.

However, the majority of funding goes into recording rather than revitalising endangered languages. The SOAS Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR), and the World Oral Literature Project, for example, document rare languages to prevent their total extinction. A core belief at Tribalingual is that the only means of saving languages and cultures is by teaching them. Archiving alone risks reducing rare languages to ‘static objects,’ as they are denied the chance to thrive in practice.

‘When I founded Tribalingual, I wanted to have a minimum viable product to take to market and test my hypothesis that there were people out there actually interested in learning about unique languages and cultures,’ Gibbens tells Geographical. ‘Through my network I found people who were passionately committed to preserving and teaching their culture and language. Luckily for us, there were also many learners who share our excitement about culture and language.’

According to Gibbens, Tribalingual ‘is fast becoming a global network of culture and language enthusiasts who are passionate about preserving our world’s diversity.’ As the ‘first online learning platform for teaching rare and endangered languages,’ it treats all languages and cultures equally, irrespective of socio-political situation.

The ‘rare language’ courses currently available include: Ainu (a Japanese language with just 15 speakers left), Gangte (Sino-Tibetan, spoken in Northeast India), Greko (from southern Italy) and Mongolian, with further plans to include the Nigerian language, Yorùbá, by late August. Although not on the UNESCO list, Yorùbá could (among other things) play a vital role in contemporary development agendas as one of the most most widely spoken African language outside the continent itself.