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Linguists sound alarm for languages

Say tongues face extinction threat

WASHINGTON - When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there's still no one to talk to.

Native Australian Charlie Mangulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands of tongues around the world on the brink of extinction.

From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said yesterday.

While an estimated 7,000 languages are spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistics specialists struggling to save at least some of them.

Five hot spots where languages are most endangered were listed yesterday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society.

In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the US Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America - Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia - as well as the area including British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

"When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown, and the everyday."

As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.

That means, if the last speaker of many of these tongues vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind, he said.

Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson analyzed the top regions for disappearing languages.

Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, after they realize that other, more widely spoken languages are more useful.

The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new generation of speakers. He said the institute works with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.

Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80 percent of the world's population, while 3,500 other languages account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

In Northern Australia, 153 languages are at risk; 113 tongues are threatened in Central South America, 54 in the Northewest Plateau, 23 in northern Asia, and 40 in the Southwestern United States.

The research is funded by the Australian government, US National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, and grants from foundations.

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