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The Loss of Language

Thousands of the world’s languages are on the verge of extinction. A small non-profit in one of the most linguistically diverse cities on Earth is documenting them before they disappear.

By Max Leighton


(Illustration: Oliver Barrett/We Are Mystery Box)

Before she died at 103 years old,Grizelda Kristiņa sat down in front of a camera at her home outside Toronto and talked about her life, her family in Latvia, her childhood on the seaside, a teacher who rode his horse to school — and how it all was beginning to disappear.

“They are not interested about old times,”she told a translator in Latvian. “The young people do not care anymore. They try to find their place in the city, and eventually Livonian language and people vanish.”

Kristiņa died two years later, in 2013. While it’s difficult to determine if an individual is the last fully fluent speaker of a language, for Livonian, Kristiņa may have been it. It’s easy to think of old languages like Livonian as obsolete and therefore dispensable, but not if you see them as repositories — of history, medicinal remedies, and other traditional knowledge.

And that’s how the Endangered Language Alliance Toronto sees them. A volunteer organization documenting endangered languages in the Canadian city, some spoken by just a handful of people in the entire world, ELAT members made a video of Kristiņa that survives her.

Anastasia Riehl, who launched the non-profit in 2012, is a linguistic researcher and director of the Strathy Language Unit at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, several hours from Toronto. “We realized that these urban centers, in particular New York and Toronto, they have a lot of these languages represented already,” she says. “So why not do this global mission, but do so in a local context?”

According to the City of Toronto’s diversity statistics, the city’s roughly 2.8 million residents come from about 200 distinct ethnic origins and speak more than 140 languages and dialects.Of these, Riehl says, at least a “few dozen” are endangered and several probably don’t even have proper names. “Large multi-ethnic cities like Toronto become the last context for these languages. There are all these tiny languages that that don’t get any attention.”

We’re living in a difficult time for language. Of the 6,000 to 7,000 spoken on Earth today, half will be extinct by the end of this century, according to United Nations estimates, and some will disappear due to violence, genocide, coercion, and displacement.

“In many settlement colonies, you find a harsh intolerance of the original population’s languages,” says Dr. Gregory D.S. Anderson, founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

“Sometimes the message is these indigenous languages are languages of the past, and only used to talk about culture or folklore. But I think more people are using it to talk about football or about movies or politics, so the message is it’s also a language of the present and of the future.”

First Nations children in the Toronto area and across Canada, for example, endured the loss of their native languages and cultural practices in the 20th century when they were forced to attend residential schools — a national trauma the country is only beginning to confront.

More often than not, though, the loss of a language is a gradual process.

“It is generally not done on the battlefield,” Anderson says, “but in the classroom or the marketplace. The main reason languages are lost is that people internalize the language ideologies that the linguistically dominant group has toward the minority or non-socially dominant groups.” In other words, minority languages are slowly suffocated.

This is troubling for several reasons. “Take the sociopolitical perspective,” Anderson says. “There’s a basic human-rights issue. People should be allowed to speak the language they choose and shouldn’t be forced to learn only a standard or only an official or national language.”

When languages vanish, says Anderson, who has worked with speakers of endangered languages from Siberia to India to Papua New Guinea, they can take vital resources with them, such as biomedical knowledge. As words for traditional plants and medicines disappear, so does the ability to use them.

“It’s probably the single most fragile knowledge domain in the world,” Anderson says. Knowledge, interactions with ecosystems, and sustainable stewardship of ecosystems is being lost.”

Add to that oral histories, traditional laws and customs, music, and any other number of intangible cultural assets. Studying the minutia of endangered languages may even hold the key to understanding how humans create languages in the first place.

“We’re on this mission to understand how language works in the human brain,” Riehl says. “The more languages that are lost, the more knowledge we’re losing toward solving that puzzle.”

For Riehl’s group, ELAT, that mission involves considerable detective work. “Sometimes,” she says of finding endangered language speakers in Toronto, “we search for community organizations, visiting with lists of languages, asking if they know anyone who speaks one of these smaller languages. Sometimes we’ll have people come to us through the Webpage saying, ‘Hey, I might have something for you.’”

ELAT’s video interviews — the one featuring Kristiņa and Livonian was the group’s first — often take a couple of hours to film, and usually stick to common themes: How the speaker came to Toronto, their community in Canada, the history of their language, and whether they’re concerned about its survival. Volunteers often ask subjects to finish with a story or a poem.

Since its inception, ELAT has documented, among others, Bukhori, spoken by Central Asian Bukharian Jews; Harari, a language of Ethiopia;and Ge’ez, and the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Gianna Dibiase grew up speaking Fossacesiana,a dialect named for her family’s hometown in Italy on the Adriatic Sea. These days she lives in the Toronto suburbs, but when she was young, her grandmother’s house in the city was like an extension of Fossacesia. Dibiase was immersed in her grandmother’s dialect.

“There is a saying for everything,” she says. “It’s so amusing. It’s such a lively language.”


A version of this story first appeared in the

September/October 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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Her grandmother died years ago, and Dibiase has seen the dialect fade, not only among her generation in Canada but in Italy as well. So when ELAT, looking for speakers of another Italian dialect, contacted her, Dibiase offered to introduce the group to her dad.

At 85 years old, Giovanni Dibiase speaks Italian, English, and Fossacesiana, but likes to joke that he doesn’t really speak anything at all. When he sat down for his own video interview, he often slipped back into standard Italian.

“I’d have to remind him through the taping, ‘Dad, your dialect! Dad, your dialect!” Gianna says.

They got through it eventually.

Riehl believes there are probably many families like the Dibiases. “There are dozens and dozens of languages of Italy spoken in Toronto,” she says. “There’s a lot of concern that most of those are endangered.” And those are just the languages of one country, in one city.

In a place as large and linguistically diverse as Toronto, ELAT doesn’t currently have the resources to cover more than a few neighborhoods, let alone branch out far beyond that. But the resources it’s developing can be applied elsewhere, and plenty of other organizations are finding ways to tackle the challenge of documenting languages before they disappear.

While Riehl officially launched ELAT four years ago, the concept came to her while working in Indonesia alongside New York linguist Dan Kaufman.

Kaufman started the Endangered Language Alliance of New York City in 2010, and his group has documented speakers of an additional 50 endangered languages using methods similar to those of ELAT.

“The reason languages are lost is that people internalize the language ideologies that the linguistically dominant group has toward the minority or non-socially dominant groups.”

Anderson’s Living Tongues Institute, on the other hand, creates online “talking dictionaries” of endangered languages from a number of countries, including Papua New Guinea and Guatemala. The Catalogue of Endangered Languages initiated by Google in 2012 includes multimedia entries in over 3,000 languages. It is now managed by several organizations, including the University of Hawaii–Mānoa and Eastern Michigan University.

Around the world, languages are also being re-claimed by the communities themselves, from grassroots attempts to resurrect indigenous languages like Miami-Illinois and Wôpanâak in the United States to national efforts to revive languages like Irish and Welsh. And the Internet is presenting new opportunities for individuals interested in this work.

Eddie Avila works with Global Voices, a non-governmental organization focused on citizen media, as the director of its Rising Voices program. “The Internet,” Avila says, “has historically been dominated by a few languages, but more and more we’re seeing a more multilingual Internet. People are tweeting, they’re making videos, they’re recording audio podcasts, they are contributing to Wikipedia in their languages.”

Avila, who is based in in Cochabamba, Bolivia, says social media has enabled often underrepresented people around his home — like Aymara youth in the city of El Alto — to not only communicate with one another online, but to speak their language to the rest of the world.

“I think it’s important to engage young people to make it seem a little more cool to speak a language,” Avila says. “Sometimes the message is these indigenous languages are languages of the past, and only used to talk about culture or folklore. But I think more and more people are using it to talk about football or about movies or politics, so the message is it’s also a language of the present and of the future.”

Each year on February 21st, International Mother Language Day, Rising Voices and other organizations working with endangered languages encourage Twitter users from around the world to tweet something in their mother tongue.

“They don’t know who’s going to read it, who’s going to receive it,” Avila says, “but I think it’s very empowering for them to send that message.”

In the end, though, those tweets, videos, and other documents may be all that remains. Despite the work by volunteers and language communities around the globe, many of the world’s most endangered languages will lose their native speakers.

“We’re getting a snapshot,” Riehl says. “Maybe they could be a postcard in 200 years when people are looking back.” And looking over the ELAT’s videos today, Dibiase says she recognizes another value. “I see the beauty,” she says. “There is so much history in what they’re saying. There’s something there.”