Endangered Languages Catalogue is Out

Point your browsers right now to endangeredlanguages.com and check out your favourite language. It’s definitely a work in progress, but it’s nicely presented and I hope it will provide a realization of just how precarious so many languages are.

I prepared a FAQ for the Australian section that explains some of the choices of for including languages, as well as other things to do with Australia. It got overlooked in the original launch, so I’m copying it here. It will hopefully answer some of the questions that linguists and the general public will immediately ask when they see data like this.

Another thing I need to say, since it also didn’t make it into the launched database, is that there *is* source material in the underlying database for language names, speaker numbers, work on the language, and so forth. In fact, there’s a huge bibliography behind this project that the ElCat team compiled over the last year. Linguistic aficionados will recognize data from ethnologue.com, as well as other sources. Hopefully that will be more clearly acknowledged before too long.

Finally, many thanks to everyone who gave me feedback earlier in the year. I did submit changes based on your comments, however it seems that many of those changes are not reflected in the current dataset; the changes are still being worked through. Same deal with all the resources I was sent; I’m sorry that so few of them appear to have made it into the launched version, but they are there and should hopefully appear soon. The map data is, however, mostly my responsibility: so if it’s wrong, do tell me directly or submit a comment on the site.


Who compiled this list?

The Australian section was a joint effort between the LinguistList and Claire Bowern, using data from many sources. Claire’s work was funded by NSF grant 844550 “Pama-Nyungan and Australian Prehistory”, though any opinions expressed in those parts of the site do not reflect opinions of the NSF.

I thought Australian languages were just dialects. Why are so many languages listed?

There are 27 different language families in Australia, and about 380 languages. (By way of comparison, Europe has about 250 languages in 4 families.) Some of the languages are quite similar to each other, while others are as different from each other as Chinese and Hebrew, or English and Japanese.

Some languages have no speakers listed – why are they “endangered”? Aren’t they “dead”?

For some languages, we haven’t been able to confirm speaker numbers. In other cases, there isn’t anyone who has grown up speaking the language, but there are still people who identify with the language, and who are working to revitalize their languages.

What does it mean to say a language is “sleeping”?

Some languages aren’t spoken daily anymore, but there are community groups who are working to bring their languages back into use. Some of those communities refer to their languages as “sleeping” rather than “dead”, since those languages are still an important part of the life and identity of the community, even if they aren’t regularly used.

Why are so many Australian languages endangered?

There are a lot of reasons, many of which date back to the early years of European settlement. Introduced diseases killed many Aboriginal people, along with hunger from reduced access to hunting grounds. In some cases, it’s because of massacres. At the Mindiri massacre at Kooncherie Point in the mid-1880s, well over 100 people were killed, including most of the speakers of Wadikali, Pirlatapa, Yarluyandi, and Malyangapa. Later, other groups were disproportionately affected by Stolen Generations policies [link: http://www.nla.gov.au/oh/bth/]. Social and economic reasons have also led to many Aboriginal people shifting to English, Kriol [link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Kriol_language], and other Aboriginal languages.

My language is strong! Why are you calling it “endangered”?

There are many different ways that a language can be endangered. Because the number of speakers of Aboriginal/TSI languages is small overall, it doesn’t take much for some languages to come under threat. Children find it hard to resist the pressure from the media, schools and the internet to switch to speaking English most of the time. Once children have made that switch, the language is severely endangered.

Some communities don’t realize at first that their languages are under threat. For example, they might think that the language is healthy because it’s still used in the community, but it might be only the elders who are using it – that’s a sign that the language is endangered.

We recognize that some languages in the catalogue are still strong, that children are learning them and they are actively used in the community, and we want to support that work. Let us know what you’re doing, and we’ll make sure we update the catalogue.

Where can I find out more information about Aboriginal/TSI languages?

New South Wales: http://ab-ed.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/go/aboriginal-languages

http://sydney.edu.au/koori/ [Koori Centre, Universirty of Sydney]

Victoria: http://www.vaclang.org.au/

Western Australia: www.klrc.org.au/languages


South Australia: http://www.apps.sa.edu.au/aln.htm

General: http://www.paradisec.org.au/blog/FAQs/

http://www.fatsilc.org.au/images/pdfs/NILS-Report-2005.pdf [a recent report on language use in Aboriginal Australia]



I want to learn an Aboriginal language: where can I find more information?

For starters:

http://www.ngapartji.org/ for Pitjantjatjara

http://iadpress.com/ publishes books on Aboriginal languages

http://www.adelaide.edu.au/kwp/ for the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Region

http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/yolngustudies/ Charles Darwin University’s Yolŋu Studies unit

I want to find out more about my language – where do I go?

Try ozbib.aiatsis.gov.au for published sources, and mura.aiatsis.gov.au for the archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (they have a lot of unpublished information about language and culture).

I’m a speaker of an Aboriginal/TSI language and I’d like to work with a linguist – who should I contact?

Submit a comment on the language with your contact details and we’ll put you in touch with local people – we’d love to hear from you!

The Documenting and Revitalizing Indigenous Languages (DRIL) Program team may be able to help you: http://www.rnld.org/node/71#DRIL, or http://www.rnld.org/node/42#training

Or if you live in South Australia the Mobile Language Team may be able to help: http://hss.adelaide.edu.au/linguistics/mlt.html

My mum/dad/grandparents speak some Language and I’d like to record them. Do you have any advice?

Have a look at the links at rnld.org, or the tutorials at http://www.youtube.com/user/clairebowern

We have good ideas for helping maintain Aboriginal/TSI languages but it needs some funding and support – where can we get it from?

If you live in an area with an Indigenous language centre, ask them. The Federal Government funds some language work through the Indigenous Language Support program: http://www.arts.gov.au/indigenous/ils

7 responses to “Endangered Languages Catalogue is Out

  1. Colleen hattersley

    This looks like a wonderful resource, especially if endangered language communities contribute. Thanks for the very useful links too. Well done to all concerned.

  2. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look! Do you happen to know who or what organizations were involved in contributing information for other language families?

  3. Niko Partanen

    Nice work! Would be great to have more language samples and resources in one place. I work myself with Komi Zyryan language and I noticed it was still missing from the map, this was the case also with Komi Jazva, which is probably the most endangered Permic language. I guess that signing in and giving feedback about these things on the site would be the best way to help. At least I can give coordinates for the ones missing.

  4. We just found the site credits (not sure how to get to it from the main page, but here’s the link: http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/assets/information_catalogue_endangered_languages.pdf). That link gives a list of the regional directors.
    Niko, yes, please sign in and submit a comment! It’s definitely a work in progress and we expect regular updates over the next few years at least.

  5. An article in the National Geographic magazine states that the main reason why so many languages are endangered is that they are being replaced by dominant ones. The more powerful a country, the more people start learning that country’s language. Globalization encourages many parents whose native tongue is only spoken by a few people to force their kids to learn languages that dominate world communication and commerce. They actually just mean good for their child. What Parent does not want that their kid to have a prosperous life?
    What’s lacking today is creating more awareness on what kind of precious knowledge is being lost.

    For more information:

  6. Pingback: Behind-the-scenes information about Google’s Endangered Languages project | All Things Linguistic

  7. Pingback: Behind-the-scenes information about Google’s Endangered Languages project | All Things Linguistic

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