Hundreds of languages are threatened with extinction A positive development for the indigenous languages of Central America

UNESCO International Mother Language Day (February 21)

On occasion of the International Mother Language Day, the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) points out that more than 600 languages and dialects are threatened with extinction. Another 1.800 of the more than 6.000 languages in the world are becoming rare. "The reasons for their dying out are as diverse as the languages themselves," explains STP-consultant Sarah Reinke. Often, it is the influence of media and the mixing of languages that leads to an extinction of the rare languages. "In some states, such as in Russia and China, the smaller languages are suppressed in order to uproot ethnic minorities and to enforce their assimilation." In South America however, many indigenous peoples and their languages are at risk because of large-scale construction projects such as dams or the operation of mines that systematically destroy the settlement areas of the ethnic communities.

There are a few endangered languages in Germany too. For example, Sater Frisian is only spoken by about 2.000 of the 13.000 inhabitants of the villages Ramsloh, Sedelsberg, Strücklingen and Scharrel in the Saterland area around Cloppenburg (Lower Saxony). Some of the "Saterlanders" are demanding Sater Frisian to be taught at the schools in the region. Lesson plans were created, but without further promotion it will be hard for the local language to compete with English courses in schools.

In North Frisia, on the islands and on Helgoland, there are about 10,000 people who speak Frisian. In Schleswig-Holstein, the language is protected by the "European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages." In order to promote Frisian, the federal state adopted the "Act on the Promotion of Frisian in the Public Sphere" in 2004. Despite these measures, the prospects for North Frisian are quite bad. "A language is always connected to the culture a person grows up with. Therefore, it is important to encourage small languages such as Frisian. The loss of a native language is also a loss of culture," says Heinrich Schultz, STP board member and former vice president of FUEN (Federal Union of European Nationalities).

The ethnic minorities in the multiethnic state of Russia have other problems trying to protect their languages from extinction. Today, 131 of the 170 languages spoken in the Russian Federation are endangered. The Mari living in the Republic of Mari El are under significant pressure to assimilate to Russian language and culture, although they still make up about 42 percent of the 700,000 inhabitants of the Volga Republic. Their languages, western and eastern Mari, are close to extinction. Their culture and language are suppressed by the Russian authorities and there is a lack of textbooks and teachers. Also, many young Mari have become ashamed of their language due to Russian pressure.

The 11,000 indigenous Shor in the South Siberian Kuzbass, whose native language is endangered, are not much better off. Russia does not only accept the possible demise of their language, but is actively trying to enforce the assimilation of the minority group.

The Circassians living in the Caucasus region are accusing the Russian authorities of suppressing their language in order to enforce Russian. Often, the schools are unable to introduce courses in Circassian, because the minimum of ten pupils is not reached. There is only a half-hour news broadcast in Circassian on TV.

Russia has still not ratified the "European Charter for Regional and Minority languages". The authorities have focused propagating the primacy of the Russian language throughout the schools and educational institutions. Therefore, secondary schools and universities only offer courses in Russian. Many members of peoples who speak minority languages discontinue using their traditional language because they are disappointed about the fact that they have little chances on the labor market without a good command of Russian.

In northwestern China, the Chinese authorities are clearly forcing the Uyghur population to accept learning Chinese as a prerequisite for a professional career. Internationally, China likes to boasts to have introduced bilingual language education in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, where 42 percent of the population are still Uyghur, despite the government-sponsored immigration of millions of Han Chinese – but this language education is a sham. China introduced Chinese as the primary language in all educational institutions during the past two decades, trying to suppress the previously dominant Uyghur language and to systematically further the Sinicisation of the country to the detriment of the non-Chinese minorities. Uyghur language activists are arrested or pressurized because of their attempts to preserve their traditional language.

"Apart from all these threatened languages, there are also some positive developments," said Reinke. In Mexico and Guatemala, media content based on the indigenous languages has become more popular than ever before. Regional TV stations are broadcasting in Mayan languages and there are even popular "Telenovelas" in different indigenous languages. In 2009, the Mexican government recognized 364 indigenous languages as official languages, along with Spanish – with the success that the Mexican version of the internet browser Firefox can now translate to 30 indigenous languages, including Maya Yucateco, Nahuatel, Zapotec and Wixarika. Meanwhile, the project was also extended with indigenous languages from Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador. The modern form of communication is meant to address especially the young people, encouraging them to revive their traditional languages.

The "Guatemalan Institute of Radio Education", which was founded in 1979, introduced a radio school that offers a possibility to learn the Mayan languages Q'eqchi' and Kaqchikel. The Radio School started off with only 214 students, but has 42,000 enrolled students by now. In Mexico, the governmental "National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples" promotes indigenous radio stations that broadcast several bilingual programs for twelve hours a day– in Spanish and one of the 31 indigenous languages.