Linguists claim 50-90% of the world’s languages will die by 2100, but are they being overly grim to attract more aid? According to National Geographic, a recent Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) by Terralingua founders David Harmon, and Jonathan Loh, calculated that the world has in fact experienced a 21% reduction in indigenous languages over the past 25 years (1970-2005): over 60% in the Americas, 30% in the Pacific and Australia, and almost 20% in Africa.
Optimistically, be aware that the Americas have hosted more languages than the Pacific, Africa, or Australia to begin with, and that the Americas constitutes two world regions (unlike Africa). Also, the term ‘linguistic diversity’ is used to mean ‘number of languages’; it is not an abstract measure of how unrelated these languages are from one another.
Even more optimistically, when confronted with the question of whether or not we can effectively revitalize dead or severely endangered languages, director/co-founder of Terralingua Luisa Maffi immediately lauded the triumphs of Native Californian communities, communities that have set up full-immersion language nest (Hawaiians, Navajo, Cherokee, Lakota), and First Nation communities.
There are extreme cases in which indigenous communities have, after going past the brink of extinction, made heroic efforts to recover as much as possible of their languages from existing data.
Work like this done by linguists and communities has been extremely valuable. I know for instance, of some Native Californian languages where the only extant documentation was really in pages of transcriptions by linguists done in the early 1900s or even earlier, and recordings on wax rolls. Members of those native communities have gone out to museums and archives to retrieve those materials, put them on computers and try to reconstruct as much as possible of the language, then train themselves by talking to a computer.
There are still elders who are fluent speakers, and those elders have been put together with children in so-called language nests so that the children begin to learn their language the way they would normally, just by talking to adults and being spoken to by adults. Or even putting together elders with teenagers in so-called master-apprentice programs where the youth are essentially in full-immersion mother-tongue medium, with the elders speaking to the youth and doing activities together so that the language becomes alive.
Read the report in the 2010 4th volume of the University of Hawaii’s Language Documentation & Conservation newsletter – which you can sign up to have delivered to you electronically – or skim through an overview by National Geographic’s Natgeo Newswatch.