Endangered Languages

What You Need


  • A large world map at the front of the class
  • Headsets are a consideration if you have access to them at your school, but they are not required for this lesson
  • Saving Aleut
Endangered Languages


To introduce students to the science of linguistics and endangered languages.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

This lesson introduces students to endangered languages with a focus on Aleut, a language native to Alaska, and Middle Chulym, a language spoken in central Siberia by about 35 people.

It is in the context of these two languages that students will learn about the study of linguistics as a science. Research shows that: “Some students of all ages believe science mainly invents things or solves practical problems rather than exploring and understanding the world.” (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.333.) Showing students an area of science that is intrinsically linked to culture may help to dispel this misconception.

In the Motivation, students will listen to a Science Update radio piece about Aleut and what linguist Alice Taff is doing to preserve the language. Students will discuss what a linguist does and how the process of linguistics as a science differs from some other sciences.

In the Development of the lesson, students will watch four short film clips from The Last Speakers, a PBS documentary about endangered languages produced by Ironbound Films and supported by a National Science Foundation grant. These clips show four different endangered languages from three continents around the world: North America, Asia, and Africa. Students will be asked to hypothesize why languages die out before the next part of the Development in which they will read an interview with Peter Ladefoged, one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered languages, that discusses the root causes.

The Social Change benchmark that “migration, conquest, and natural disasters” are major factors in causing a cultural change, also will be addressed in the Development of the lesson. However, when a language stops being used, there are various reasons that don’t fit cleanly into the three causes stated by the benchmark. One such reason is that widely used languages can squeeze out the smaller ones, something described in the interview. They also will read about the importance of a language being spoken at home: once a language stops being used in the home, the risk for the language petering out becomes great.

Another important point made throughout the lesson is how language is part of one’s culture. When the language is lost, so too are important parts of the culture.

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Planning Ahead

A Special Report: Language & Linguistics by the National Science Foundation offers good background information. The introduction gives a definition of linguistics. Hit enter and on the left is a table of contents with a section on endangered languages. This section covers: how globalization is causing some languages to become endangered, the implications of this, and preservation efforts. This paper is likely too advanced for 6th graders, but may be o.k. for some 8th graders if you want to incorporate it into the motivation or use it as an extra credit reading assignment.


Give students a good overview of this lesson—this may be a new topic to them and you will want to illustrate how culture is intertwined with language. (Note: If you have students in your class who speak other languages, explore the topic with those students to ascertain examples of things they say and do, and traditions in their families that do not translate into English.)

Ask students to describe the importance of language. Ask: “What does it help you do?” Write their answers on the board. Students will likely start to describe how it helps them communicate. Follow up their answers by asking, “Do you think there is more to language than just words?”

Tell students that culture is carried in languages. Below are examples of culture being part of the Korean language. Use these examples or other examples you are familiar with.

  • In English, you might say thank you and/or good-bye to someone after you have made a purchase in a store. In Korean, you would say the equivalent of “work hard” as you bow your head slightly, instead of good-bye. To English speakers, this may sound like a command, but to Koreans it is a nice thing to say.
  • In Korean, there is not one word for uncle or aunt, but many words depending on who is saying it and which side of the family the “uncle” or “aunt” is on. For instance, a child will have one word for his mother’s sister and a different word for his father’s sister.

Emphasize this point and ask students: “If a language stops being spoken, what is lost with it?”

Now, have a student come to the front to identify Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. (Aleutians also live on the Pribilof Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the far west of the Alaska Peninsula. You will want to have the students also point to these places.)

Tell students to go to their Endangered Languages student esheet. They will link to Saving Aleut, a 90-second radio piece. Students will hear a brief conversation in Aleut and hear sound bites from linguist Alice Taff. Students can use the Endangered Languages student sheet to answer these questions. Discuss them in class:

  • What has happened to the language Aleut?
      (Aleut was once spoken by more than 20,000 people. Now only about 100 people speak it fluently.)
  • What is the linguist, Alice Taff, doing to preserve the language?
      (Taff is documenting the language including vocabulary, songs, and how it is used in everyday life.)
  • What about the science of linguistics? How would you explain it to someone?
      (Students will understand that what Taff does is linguistics, but they may not know the full extent of this area of study. Tell them that it’s not just endangered languages, but many different aspects of language that linguists study. Invite students to brainstorm different ways that language could be studied. According to A Special Report: Language and Linguistics, some things today’s linguists study include: how different sounds function in a language; how children learn language; the psychological processes involved in the use of language; the biological basis of language in the brain. The point is to show the broad range of linguistics.)
  • Does Taff fit your image, or the typical image, of a scientist?
      (This is an opportunity to point out that scientists are not just inventors, or people in white coats working in a lab. Taff goes out in the field to collect information and is essentially working toward learning and preservation.)
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Write the words “Cultural Knowledge” on the board. Explain that 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. An example is the Tofa people in Siberia who developed an amazing system in their native language for classifying reindeer. They classified every reindeer by age, sex, ease of riding, etc. This system helped the Tofa people thrive in a very harsh environment. The language was not passed on to the current generation. (The younger generation speaks Russian.) The herder can still do his job, but he doesn’t have the same valuable tools and knowledge passed down from his elders.

Explain that 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.

Now ask students, “Do you see how language is more than just how words sound?” Within the language is culture: stories, traditions, and knowledge that are passed down. That is why Dr. Taff is working to preserve the Aleut language.

Now students should use their esheet to go to video clips from The Last Speakers, which last a total of two and a half minutes. They also will read a paragraph about each clip and they may opt to go back and watch the film clips again after reading about them.

The Last Speakers is a documentary about endangered languages shown on PBS. Students will see these clips of people speaking endangered languages:

  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. Students will read a more in-depth article about Chulym language at the end of the lesson.
  3. The third clip is Una Rooi, a woman speaking Nǀu, a language that nearly died out in South Africa. The language is one that can immediately be recognized for its clicking sounds. Rooi says, “If a person who speaks our language dies, our language also dies,” a quote you will refer to in the discussion that follows this exercise.
  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.

After students have watched the clips, have one or two students identify on the map where these languages are spoken. They should point out Arizona, Siberia, South Africa, and Hawaii.

Ask students these questions:

  • What was most striking to you about these film clips? Or, what were you surprised to learn?
      (This is a broad question to see what students are thinking. They may not have known that right in the U.S. there are dying languages, depending on their exposure to this topic. Let students simply discuss what their thoughts are at this point.)
  • Do you have ideas or even guesses about why a language stops being used?
      (The South African woman in clip three made reference to a language being part of a person and when that person dies, the language held within them does, too. It may help to point to this statement. This question will help you determine what students already know and what points will need to be made throughout the rest of the lesson. You also may want to bring up Chemehuevi and Hawaiian and ask what language students usually hear in the mall, or in school. Why do they think languages in the United States would become endangered?)
  • What elements of culture are lost when a language dies out? Which elements of culture are independent of language?
      (Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Now students should go to On Endangered Languages, an interview with Peter Ladefoged, one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered languages. He discusses why and how languages become endangered.

After students read this, ask these questions:

  • How do widely spoken languages affect less-used, or endangered, languages? And how does a language become endangered?
      (Ladefoged describes how “larger languages” have an influence on people. If people must use the larger language at school or for business, it also may start being used by the children. If children stop speaking the smaller languages, they are not carried on and can become endangered. You may want to emphasize, as he does, that use of a language becomes doomed when it is no longer the language spoken in the home. You may also want to refer back to the languages in the film clips. It is pretty safe to say that most U.S. schools use English—perhaps students can now infer how many Native American languages have become endangered or died out.)
  • Do any of you speak other languages?
      (If you have students in class who are bilingual, this is a great opportunity to learn from them, if they are not too self-conscious. Ask when and with whom the students speak the other language. Is it the predominant language in the home? Or is it a language used with grandparents? Will those students try to maintain that language? Why or why not?)
  • How do you think culture is linked to language?
      (If you do have bilingual students, they will be able to answer this question firsthand, though they may not even be aware of how strongly linked language is to culture. If you do not have bilingual students, explore how “native” languages may be linked to food, old stories, and music among other things.)

Students should go on to read A Swarthmore professor, worried that so many languages are dying out, undertook a rescue mission to Siberia, an article about K. David Harrison, a linguist who is trying to save Middle Chulym, the endangered Siberian language, which was demonstrated in clip two earlier. When students are done reading, ask these questions:

  • Describe linguist Harrison’s research and how he carries it out.
      (He is working to record and preserve Middle Chulym by talking to the last speakers of the language. Students may describe that he must travel to a very remote place and live there for a short time in order to do his work.)
  • What has caused the Os to stop speaking their native language?
      (Political repression during Soviet rule had some effect on the language. Harrison is quoted as saying: “The speakers were made to feel ashamed of their ethnicity and languages, and their children were in many cases sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language or punished for doing so.” He also says that linguists don’t exactly know the process by which a language stops being used.)
  • Why do you think Harrison’s work is important?
      (This gets back to a larger point of the lesson—that losing a language also means losing culture. There are many examples in the article of words that carry many meanings, some linked to a hunter/gatherer society. For instance, Harrison gives an example of the Tofa language, another Siberian language. Reindeer herders have an individual word for every imaginable combination of traits in reindeer.)
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To assess student understanding, ask them to answer these essay questions, each with four or five sentences to recap what they’ve learned in the lesson:

  • What does a linguist do and why is it important?
      (Students should at least be able to cite what Taff and Harrison are doing as linguists: spending time with people to document their language and how it is used. If students can, they should broaden that definition to include, for example, how children learn language.)
  • What can cause a language to die or become endangered? Give examples.
      (This has been covered in the lesson. Larger languages can take over. Also, languages can be repressed by governments, as Middle Chulym and Native American languages were.)
  • Why is preserving languages important?
      (One of the reasons that should be stated is because they are linked to culture. Some of the things that are lost, such as perspectives and attitudes about life, may be hard to articulate in an essay question, but students should indicate that they understand the depth of what can be lost.)


The Science NetLinks lesson, Environment, Technology, and Culture of the Chumash People, helps extend the ideas in this lesson by helping to define culture.

Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association gives an overview of the history of the Aleuts.

Ironbound Films, producers of The Last Speakers (and contributors to this lesson) have a Press Link on their site that has a good compilation of stories about dying languages and stories about K. David Harrison, the linguist trying to save Middle Chulym, among other languages.

Students can go to Native Tongue: A Hawaiian Glossary to listen to Hawaiian words.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards