INDICATORS OF LANGUAGE ENDANGERMENT
abdul at October 1st, 2015
Three main criteria are used as guidelines for considering a language ‘endangered’:
The number of speakers currently living.
The mean age of native and/or fluent speakers.
The percentage of the youngest generation acquiring fluency with the language in question.
Thus, as a rule of thumb, a language is endangered when the children in a community are being spoken to in a language other than that of their parents. The children may understand their parents’ language but will be unable to speak it fluently – they are passive bilinguals. The language is then lost to their children, as they will not be able to speak or understand it at all. This can lead to the situation where grandparents and grandchildren speak totally different languages and sometimes cannot effectively communicate with each other.
UNESCO‘s Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages offers this definition of an endangered language: ‘… when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next. That is, there are no new speakers, adults or children’ (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/00120-EN.pdf).Thus a language with a relatively small number of speakers, such as Icelandic (300,000 speakers) can be considered very much alive as it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) language of all children in that community. Yemba (spoken in the western province of Cameroon, Africa) likewise has 300,000 speakers but is considered endangered as people locally shift towards a linguistic variety known as Pidgin and towards English.
Of course, the above scale of endangerment is not a very sophisticated one. There are many factors which are involved in the endangerment of languages, not just the three “rules of thumb” mentioned above. A more complete scale would look something like that proposed by Lewis (2006), which includes seven parameters of endangerment: