Economically well-developed regions such as north-western North America and northern Australia were identified as hotspots for language loss, along with countries currently experiencing rapid economic growth, including areas of the tropics and the Himalayas.
The study found that aboriginal languages in Australia are now disappearing from the northern territories. In North America, languages such as Upper Tanana, a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska, were also at risk of extinction. It was found to have only 24 active speakers in 2009, and was no longer being acquired by children.In Europe too, numbers of speakers of minority languages such as Ume Sami in Scandinavia or Auvergnat in France are rapidly declining.
Applying criteria used to identify endangered species (including small population size, small geographical habitat range and population change) to huge language datasets the researchers found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita correlated most with the loss of language diversity.
He emphasised that in the interests of the conservation of human cultural diversity, efforts need to be made to protect these at-risk languages, particularly those found in the tropics and the Himalayas. “These countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, so in the near future these languages will face risk of extinction,” he said.
Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance commented on the research: “Environmental factors have been overshadowed by social, political and economic factors.
“The environmental pattern at this point is largely historical residue. That is, we will no longer see areas of a particular environmental type attract or spawn language diversity. The economic aspect, however, cannot be overemphasized, as there are places within the language diversity ‘hotspots’ where whole villages are being emptied out due to out-migration.
“Because much of this migration is recent and undocumented, accurate numbers are unfortunately not readily available for statistical analysis.”
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