MIT Indigenous Language Initiative


Language Loss

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Language Loss


The world’s languages are dying out

In this country, 165 Native American languages are still spoken.

  • 74 almost extinct (handful of elderly speakers) (45%)
  • 58 with fewer than 1,000 speakers (35%)
  • 25 with 1,000-10,000 speakers (15%)
  • 8 with 10,000+ speakers (5%)

Largest Native American language is:

Navajo 148,530 speakers

(just for comparison:)
Danish 194,000 speakers in this country
Tagalog 377,000 speakers in this country
Hungarian 447,497 speakers in this country

In the world, approximately 6,000 languages are spoken...
...of which only about 600 are confidently expected to survive this century.


How this is different from language loss historically

Ken Hale (Language 1992):

“[T]he process of language loss throughout most of human history, i.e., the period prior to the development of large states and empires, has been attended by a period of grammatical merger in situations of multilingualism, in geographically confined areas, and among quite small communities [...]. By contrast, language loss in the modern period is of a different character, in its extent and implications. It is part of a much larger process of LOSS OF CULTURAL AND INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY in which politically dominant languages and cultures simply overwhelm indigenous local languages and cultures, placing them in a condition which can only be described as embattled.”

Language loss in specific communities

Language loss has a profound impact on indigenous and minority communities and revitalization and maintenance efforts by concerned people can make a big difference in the way the community values not only its language but, even more, its entire culture.

Selections from Terralingua (

“Our languages are the cornerstone of who we are as a people.” -- Mary Richards and Ida Bear, Winnipeg [Canada]. (In Richardson 1993: 240).

“Our language is one of God's blessings that our forefathers received thousands of years ago. Our parents have conserved Kaqchikel, and we cannot simply cast it off now as if it were worth nothing. God gave us talent though Kaqchikel; either we bury it or we make it multiply.” -- Kaqchikel [Guatemala] Integrated Development Center. (In Fishman 1997: 240).

“It would not be a good thing for the Mixe language to disappear because it represents our culture. We have inherited it from our ancestors. If it were to be lost, nothing would be left from the past and our brothers would not know each other.” -- Mixe speaker [Mexico]. (In King 1994: 136).

“I was not taught my language. My mom says my dad didn't want us to learn, because when he was going through school he saw what difficulty his peers were having because they had learned Hualapai first, and the schools were all taught in the English language. And so we were not taught, my brothers and I.

I don't feel complete... Sometimes I feel apart from my peers, the ones that are my age and do speak, and they all know that I don't speak... Coming to terms with my identity and seeing my deficiencies, I could tell the kids today that if you don't know your language, you will feel [as I do].” -- Young Hualapai [U.S.A.] man. (In Hornberger 1996: 101).

“Preservation [...] is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans. [...] Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.” -- Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Tlingit [Alaska] oral historians. (In Lord 1996: 68).


Jessie Little Doe Fermino, Wampanoag Revitalization Project (quoted by Orna Feldman in Spectrum, Spring 2001 issue)

“Language is part of us and part of our genetic structure. Not to acknowledge a part of you is breaking a spiritual law. [...] Learning our language gives us a basis for why we view the world the way we do.” She feels “honored to be reading documents of my ancestors, to be able to pray in my own language, and to be able to do something as silly as putting Wampanoag on my answering machine — it sure cuts down on the sales calls.

[...] Fermino says the enterprise has helped her “better understand where I came from and my place in the circle,” adding that “the best revenge is to be able to use the documents that attempted to separate us from who we were to further ground us in who we were. It tickles the heck out of me.”