Endangered Languages


Languages can carry cultural knowledge that does not translate directly to other languages. Cultural knowledge may include how to grow certain foods or hunt. It may be stories passed down from generation to generation. People who work to preserve languages generally believe that losing a language means a loss of inherited knowledge—the kind that is passed on from generation to generation. And inherited knowledge is really what makes human culture unique.


In this lesson, you will learn about the science of linguistics and about how linguists work to preserve endangered languages. Below are two definitions you’ll want to read before starting this lesson.

Linguistics — the science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics.

Endangered languages— languages headed for extinction; they are without monolingual speakers, people who speak only that language. In general, they are languages that are not being spoken in the home and being passed on to children.

Start by going to the Science Update, Saving Aleut and click on the audio file. As you listen, think about these questions (you can write your answers to these questions on the Endangered Languages student sheet):

  • What has happened to the language Aleut?
  • What is the linguist, Alice Taff, doing to preserve the language?
  • What about the science of linguistics? How would you explain it to someone?
  • Does Taff fit your image, or the typical image, of a scientist?

Reading “Making Sense of the Research” below the audio file may help you think about these questions. Check with your teacher before continuing.

Now go to The Last Speakers to watch four clips. Each person you will watch is speaking an endangered language. You will see these speakers:

  1. The first clip shows Johhny Hill speaking Chemehuevi, a Native American language near extinction. His grandmother spoke the language to him as he was growing up and now he is one of the last speakers. The Chemehuevi mostly live in Arizona.
  2. The second clip is a story being told in Middle Chulym, a language that started to die out due to political reasons. In the 1940s, Joseph Stalin ordered Chulym children to attend boarding schools where instruction was in Russian. Chulym was regarded as a gutter language and the children stopped using it, for the most part.
  3. The third clip is Una Rooi, a woman speaking N/u, a language that nearly died out in South Africa. The language is one that can immediately be recognized for its clicking sounds.
  4. The final clip shows a group of young people singing in Hawaiian, a language that was largely displaced by English after Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1899, when the language was banned from schools. Efforts over the past few decades have been made to revitalize the language.

Once you’ve viewed these clips, answer these questions:

  • What was most striking to you about these film clips? Or, what were you surprised to learn?
  • Do you have ideas or even guesses about why a language stops being used?
  • What elements of culture are lost when a language dies out? Which elements of culture are independent of language?

Check with your teacher before continuing

Now go to On Endangered Languages to read an interview with Peter Ladefoged, one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered languages. You will discuss these questions with your class:

  • How do widely spoken languages affect lesser used, or endangered languages? And how does a language become endangered?
  • Do you or classmates speak other languages?
  • How do you think culture is linked to language?

Check with your teacher before continuing.Now read A Swarthmore professor, worried that so many languages are dying out, undertook a rescue mission to Siberia. Be ready to discuss these questions with your class:

  • Describe linguist Harrison’s research and how he carries it out.
  • What has caused the Os to stop speaking their native language?
  • Why do you think Harrison’s work is important?


Knowledge Check

Use your Endangered Languages student sheet to answer these questions. You should write four or five sentences for each answer.

  • What does a linguist do and why is it important?
  • What can cause a language to die or become endangered? Give examples.
  • Why is preserving languages important?

This esheet is a part of the Endangered Languages lesson.

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Esheet Details

Grades Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards