Dying languages

You may have heard that a large number of the world’s languages are dying. That may have caused you to wonder if it might be a waste to translate the Bible into those languages. That is a very good thing to wonder about! As you might expect, the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”.

First, how many languages are dying out? Well, UNESCO has an Atlas of Endangered Languages (Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing)  which you can find on line at http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap.html.
For Ghana, it lists five languages as endangered. There are five degrees of endangerment ranging from vulnerable to extinct. Languages not endangered are listed as “safe”. Here is the UNESCO language vulnerability scale definitions for each degree of endangerment.

Degree of endangerment

Intergenerational language transmission


Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g. home)

Definitely endangered

Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home

Severely endangered

Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves

Critically endangered

The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently


There are no speakers left

None of the Ghana languages are extinct. Only one gets the next-worst ranking – “critically endangered”, and three get ranked as having the least severe degree of endangerment – “vulnerable” – where most people still speak the language. So it is far from certain that all of the five languages listed as endangered will die out. Even if they did, because there are more than 60 languages spoken in Ghana, at least 55 languages will continue. They are in no danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. In fact, almost all of them will probably even continue to grow. The situation is similar to this is much of Africa. On the other hand, many languages in other parts of the world seem to be headed toward almost certain extinction, as the following chart shows.
Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Chart of languages in danger of dying worldwide

Before we translate the Bible into a language, we do some research to find out if the language is dying, and other facts about it. This assures that we make a good investment of God’s resources. We also make the decisions by taking into account the situation for each language, not on the basis of global trends.
Lastly, some language trends are not developing the way many predicted. For example, it was thought that the Internet would cause the spread of English and the consequent death or marginalization of other languages. But according to a recent analysis of languages used on the Internet:
In 2009, it only took 37 languages to reach 98 percent of people on the web, but in 2012 it takes 48 languages to reach the same percentage
So it might be that the Internet is actually making a way for smaller languages to survive, perhaps even extend themselves. Trends in human society are rarely linear or easy to predict. What seems obvious, sometimes turns out to be false.
Rest assured that we pay special attention to the question of language death in our planning and decision-making. Our agenda is to serve people who speak languages that are very much alive.

If you liked this, you might also like Teach Them English.

2 thoughts on “Dying languages

  1. Excellent post.There was a study in UCLA about dying language.l spoke about the fate of the Arabic language ,it could survive to 2040.There are other languages which will vanish within 50 years.Translation is part of our human history.Man translated the Egyptian 5000 year old language to understand their civilization .Regards.jalal


  2. Pingback: Endangered Languages | Heart Language

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