Futures 35 (2003) 961–973 www.elsevier.com/locate/futures
The future of native languages
Dartmouth College, 6086 Reed Hall, Hanover, NH 03755, USA
This paper examines some of the difﬁculties facing forecasting about the fate of endangered
languages. It is argued that previous efforts to predict the number of languages that will become
extinct in the next century are ﬂawed in that they do not make ﬁne enough distinctions between
language situations and they assume that socio-economic patterns that characterized the col-
onial period and the rise of the nation state will continue indeﬁnitely. Several breaks from the
past, which may affect language death, are examined, including language revitalization pro-
grams, information technology, globalization, and environmental degradation.
2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
We are in the midst of a massive demographic transformation on our planet—a
shift from linguistic and cultural diversity toward linguistic and cultural homogen-
eity. Such a shift, it seems, is not without precedent; the steady dispersal of agricul-
tural societies that occurred 10,000 years ago likely involved the disappearance of
a large number of cultures and languages. However, what makes the current demo-
graphic shift distinctive is the astonishing rapidity at which it is happening. Of course,
phenomena such as languages and cultures prove difﬁcult to objectify, and our
knowledge about many languages/cultures is limited. Both factors make them difﬁ-
cult to enumerate for statistical purposes, but credible attempts to measure the con-
temporary magnitude of decline in linguo-cultural diversity are startling. For
example, widely accepted estimates point to the loss of a language at every 2 weeks
on average over the next century , where ‘loss’ means the complete absence of
any ﬂuent speaker.
The decline in overall numbers of languages (and presumably a signiﬁcant number
E-mail address: email@example.com (L. Whaley).
0016-3287/03/$ - see front matter 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
962 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
of cultures) has been going on for several centuries, yet because the shift is of global
proportion and is discernable only in the passing of several generations, its trajectory
has gone unexamined until relatively recently. Certainly, the academic community
was slow to make it a topic of inquiry. In was only in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century
that comments on the immanent loss of indigenous languages began to appear with
any degree of frequency, both in the writings of scholars of international renown,
such as Frans Boas and Edward Sapir, and in publications of missionaries and
explorers (as just one example, see Ref. ). Not until the end of the 20th century
had discussion over the leveling of linguistic and cultural variation matured to the
point where we might be justiﬁed in speaking of a corpus of literature on the issue.
Looking just to work on language endangerment, one ﬁnds good general accounts
[4,32], as well as case studies too numerous to cite here. There are efforts to capture
the core causes of language loss [7,40], regional studies (see most of the papers in
Ref. ) and efforts to establish comparative accounts of language loss situations
. The effects of language loss both on the structure of language [3,17,18] and
on individual self-identity [5,22] have been investigated. Most recently, we ﬁnd work
exploring the relation of language loss to biodiversity [15,16,32] and the question
of where language use ﬁts into the slate of basic human rights .
One lacuna in this important body of research is the attempt to be more precise
in predicting how many languages are, in fact, likely to disappear in the next century
or so versus how many are at risk of disappearing. In this article, I would like to
clarify this distinction and point out why it is of key signiﬁcance in understanding
the future of languages on the planet. Before doing so, two caveats are in order.
First, while I will argue that from both a theoretical and empirical perspective not
all languages at risk of dying will actual die, this no way diminishes the profound
global reformation that is occurring due to the loss of languages. Whether 50 or 55
or even 90% of the existing languages become extinct, the fact remains that a remark-
able demographic event would have taken place. Second, while this article is
grounded in the conviction that a more precise forecast of the future of languages
is desirable and possible, I will not accomplish any precision in numbers here. The
goal is, rather, to underscore a few of the variables that need to be considered in
developing a more reliable and speciﬁc account of how many languages will die in
the coming 100–200 years.
2. What is an ‘endangered’ language?
Even a quick survey of writing on endangered languages, both in the popular press
and in scholarly publications, reveal a ubiquitous statistic about language vitality:
50–90% of languages could die in the next 200 years. Here is a representative state-
ment: “Some prominent linguists predict that half of roughly 6000 world languages
will be silenced by the end of this century, and that 80–90% will die off within the
next 200 years”(Newsweek International, June 19, 2000). As is typical, the statistics
here are attributed to unnamed authorities on the topic, though it is almost certain
that they are ultimately derived from the seminal research of Michael Krauss. He
963L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
may be one of the most cited linguists in the world, yet often does not receive his
due credit. The published version of this research  remains, to the best of my
knowledge, the most explicit attempt to predict the rate of language loss in the immi-
Among other contributions in this work, Krauss makes a four-way classiﬁcation
of language vitality: (1) Extinct languages are those that are no longer spoken; (2)
Moribund languages are those that are no longer being learned by children as a
mother-tongue; (3) Safe languages are those that will continue to be spoken into the
indeﬁnite future due to large numbers of speakers and/or ofﬁcial state support, and
(4) Endangered languages are those languages which do not fall into the other three
categories and “will—if the present conditions continue—cease to be learned by
children during the coming century”(p. 6). That is, these languages will become
moribund, and in all but exceptional cases, will eventually become extinct.
Taking 6000 languages as a reasonable estimate for the number of languages being
spoken in the world, Krauss places 600 in his safe category, 3000 in the moribund
category and the remainder in the endangered category. On this basis a range of 50–
90% of languages dying out is obtained. Moribund languages (50%), since they are
no longer being transmitted, are doomed and set the lower mark for language death.
Add the endangered languages (i.e. 40% of the world’s languages), and one sees the
foundation to Krauss’dire conclusion: “Therefore, I consider it a plausible calcu-
lation that—at the rate things are going—the coming century will see either the death
or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages”(p. 7).
For present purposes, two basic, as well as related, objections must be raised in
connection with this conclusion. First, although Krauss’negative deﬁnition of an
‘endangered language,’i.e. a language that is not ‘safe’nor ‘moribund,’poses no
difﬁculty per se, his monolithic understanding of what is going to happen to the
vitality of these languages is at least debatable, if not misleading. Consider the fol-
lowing: Shosone, an Uto-Aztecan language of the US, and Foi, a Papuan language of
Papua New Guinea, both have roughly 2500 speakers and would both be considered
endangered under Krauss’taxonomy. However, the social contexts in which one
ﬁnds these languages could not be more different. For well-known historical reasons,
Shoshone speakers have been under pressure to switch to English for over a century.
They live in a country where stable bilingualism is discouraged and where they are
surrounded by English speaking people—not to mention an English-based pop-cul-
ture that is marketed with great effect. Most people of Shoshone heritage do not
speak the language. Short of a Herculean effort on the part of Shoshone communities,
the language will become moribund in the coming decades. But what about Foi?
The speakers of this language dwell in a country with a long history of multi-lingual-
ism. They are surrounded by speakers of several other languages (e.g. Kewa and
Samberigi), but these languages are not encroaching on Foi. The infrastructure of
the country is such that the development of this area is not an imminent possibility.
Almost everyone of Foi ethnicity speaks the language. In this case, the future vitality
of the language is much harder to predict. Certainly, because Foi has a small number
of overall speakers, it is at risk. Disease or environmental catastrophe could wipe
out the population or cause migration. The government of Papua New Guinea could
964 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
instigate a massive campaign to spread Tok Pisin or English at the expense of count-
less indigenous languages. A neighboring speech community might achieve a
regional prestige that leads speakers of Foi to learn this language in place of their
own. All these occurrences are possible, but they do not seem likely, at least not in
the near future.
Therefore, a more accurate prediction about language loss must involve a more
nuanced treatment of endangered languages. Indeed, this is precisely the tack taken
by other linguists , especially those who have examined language vitality on
regional levels rather than a global scale, for example, Kinkade  in Canada and
Krauss himself  in the circumpolar countries. Minimally, we must recognize a
distinction between two subsets of endangered languages, languages that are likely
to disappear (typically because they are already on a recognizable path to
moribundity) versus languages that are currently viable but are at risk of becoming
moribund because they are not ‘safe’in Krauss’sense. Ideally, this latter subset
should involve further discriminations depending on the nature of the risk, a point
to which I return later.
The second objection to treat Krauss’statistics as a reliable forecast to the future
of language use is that his estimate for current moribundity is probably too high.
Krauss arrives at his number of 50% in the following manner. He begins by noting
that his primary source for language vitality data, Ethnologue , has 50% of the
world’s languages being sufﬁciently viable to warrant Bible translations, 10% not
being viable enough, and 40% not being classiﬁable due to lack of information.
Krauss grants that a good many of the “unknown 40% may be viable”(p. 6) but
contends that the compilers of Ethnologue “might agree that as many as 20% of the
world’s languages are already moribund”(p. 6). Why, then, does Krauss raise this
number to 50%? Two reasons. First, he indicates that two other (unfortunately
unnamed) experts had arrived at a number more along the lines of 50%. Second, he
asserts that the conditions which are known to have led to high language mortality
seems to hold sway in countries with the highest levels of language diversity. Though
his argument is not explicit, the logic appear to be that since language moribundity
is known to be around 90% in well surveyed parts of the world—North America,
Australia and the northern region of the former Soviet Union—then moribundity is
probably also around 90% in other areas of high linguistic diversity. Therefore, many
of the unknown languages in the Ethnologue are probably moribund, as perhaps are
some of those that the Ethnologue implies are viable. If so, 50% is reasonable mark
to set the current level for moribundity in world’s languages.
However, the presupposition behind Krauss’logic is dubious. While some points
of commonality can be identiﬁed for at risk languages around the world, there are
also important variations in circumstances in some regions, and signiﬁcantly, the
widest points of variation are found in many countries that have high linguistic diver-
sity. Take just the ﬁve countries that have the most languages spoken within their
borders. According to Krauss, these are: Papua New Guinea (850 languages), Indone-
sia (670), Nigeria (410), India (380) and Cameroon (270). Taken together, the langu-
ages of these ﬁve countries constitute roughly 43% of the overall global total.
Although these countries were all colonized to a degree, they are also unlike the
965L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
Americas, Australia, and Russia in that the majority of the colonizing population
ultimately left, and native populations remained. As a result, the colonial languages
of these countries are not the primary threat to at risk languages, at least in the sort
run. Indeed, one is hard pressed to identify any indigenous languages that have
become moribund due to the spread of the language of the colonizers, e.g. English
in Nigeria and India, or French in Cameroon. Rather the typical pattern in these
countries is for widely spoken indigenous languages to pose the largest immediate
threat to smaller languages.
When the literature on endangered languages in these countries is examined, it
does not focus on widespread moribundity of languages; rather it highlights the very
real threats which might cause languages to become moribund (e.g. the excellent
overview of the language situation in Papua New Guinea by Nettle and Romaine
), accounts for the current absence of widespread moribundity (cf. Annamalai
, who says about India: “The reasons for the general lack of loss and shift [of
Indian languages] can be found in the social, economic and political structure of the
country,”), or identiﬁes the beginnings of a language shift (a recent example from
Nigeria is provided by Adegbija , who looks at the use of Oko in urban areas,
but writes “Oko seems to be doing quite well in its own village hinterland”).
The point here is decidedly not to say that small indigenous languages spoken in
sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and areas of the Paciﬁc are all thriving and that
concerns about their future vitality are misplaced. On the contrary, many of these
languages continue to be passed on to children only due to a tenuous set of circum-
stances that might well change due to war, destruction of local environments, disease,
surrounding social or economic assimilatory pressures, government policies unfavor-
able to ethnic minorities or their languages, and so on. And many of the speech
communities where these languages are spoken have already begun a shift such that
a smaller percentage of children are learning them than in the past. While avoiding
a false optimism, I suggest that Krauss’guess at the percentage of the present level
of moribund languages is inﬂated by as much as 20%.
3. Categorizing threatened languages
When it comes to forecasting the future of languages, both in terms of whether
they are likely to disappear and when, it is imperative to make a sufﬁcient number
of distinctions among language vitality types. The prospects for a moribund language
are bleak; this is less obviously true for a currently viable language, say one spoken
in a rural part of Cameroon, even if the language is the mother tongue of only a
few thousand people. At the least, a six-way scheme is required to categorize langu-
ages: safe, at risk, disappearing, moribund, nearly extinct and extinct.
The categorization that I am suggesting is similar in spirit to the ﬁve-way system of Kinkade ,
but differs in two respects. First, Kinkade groups disappearing and moribund languages together (labeled
‘endangered languages’). Second, Kinkade’s equivalent to my ‘at risk’category is reserved only for
languages with a small number of people spoken in an isolated community.
966 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
ﬁcation subdivides two of Krauss’categories. First, I make a distinction between
Moribund languages, i.e. those which are not being learned by children as a mother-
tongue versus nearly extinct languages, which are those that, properly speaking, lack
a speech community. That is, they are not being used by anyone on a regular basis.
For most nearly extinct languages, there are only a handful of native speakers left,
where in some cases a Moribund language may still have a sizable number of speak-
ers. This is the case, for example, with Oroqen, a Northwestern Tungusic language
in China, which is moribund. There are roughly 2000 native speakers, and in at least
a couple of villages, there are adults who will use the language on a daily basis.
The language could conceivably survive if there were a substantial shift in attitudes
about the desirability of transmitting the language to children. For nearly extinct
languages, however, long-term survival is almost inconceivable.
I also sub-divide Krauss’‘endangered languages’category into ‘at risk’and ‘disap-
pearing’. By a disappearing language, I mean one for which there is an observable
shift to another language in most or all of the communities where it is spoken. This
does not mean that children are not learning the language, but only that an increas-
ingly smaller percentage of children do. Such languages are on a path to moribundity,
but we cannot simply assume that they will eventually enter into that state without
ﬁrst looking at the speciﬁc variables which affect the likelihood of long-term use.
When prognosticating on what the global picture of language diversity will look
like in 100 years (or 50 or 200 years for that matter), the most careful attention must
be given to languages that fall in the at risk or disappearing category, and to a lesser
extent moribund languages that still have a signiﬁcant number of ﬂuent speakers.
Whereas cataclysmic changes in the world, for example large-scale nuclear war,
might mean the loss of a safe language, and an extraordinary set of circumstances
might vivify an extinct language (such as Hebrew) or revitalize a nearly extinct
language (such as seems to be happening with Manx), such occurrences are truly
atypical. Similarly, since the long-term success rate in reversing language shift for
highly moribund languages is unknown, we must identify their survival only as a
hopeful, yet remote possibility. For other types of languages, however, the future
prospects are much harder to state with certainty, and we should make categorical
statements with utmost reserve.
What makes the future of at risk languages and disappearing languages uncertain
is the fact that a complex matrix of political, social, economic, environmental and
educational variables inﬂuence the on-going use of these languages. Some of the
variables are purely localized, but others are more regional, national or transnational
in character (see Grenoble and Whaley’s work  for a discussion on how such
variables relate). Furthermore, the variables are dynamic, which is to say that was
true of the situation facing, say Oroqen, Shoshone or Oko, in the past 200 years is
not the same today with respect to certain variables, nor will it be true 200 years
from now. The task, then, for understanding how a language will fare in the future
is the task of identifying the important variables that are buttressing or sapping the
strength of a language and predicting whether and how these variables will change.
967L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
4. Fluctuating variables of language vitality
For any given language community, there are a large number of variables that are
relevant to understanding the vitality of the primary language, including such things
as the spheres of language use, the degree of multi-lingualism, educational practices,
scale and type of local economy, levels of exogamy, and so on. Any time that one
or more variables change, the possibility arises that the vitality of the language can
be affected, for better or for worse. The premise behind this view of assessing langu-
age use is that every community must ultimately be studied in its own right because
no two-language communities ever share precisely the same combination of vari-
ables. Even so, it is clear that there are persistent patterns across language communi-
ties that make generalizations possible. For example, Krauss  accurately recog-
nizes the ofﬁcial status of a language and a large number of speakers as dominant
variables that allow us to predict the long-term survival of a language.
There are many variables whose values are currently in ﬂux for speech communi-
ties all over the world because of social, political and economic trends of a global
scale. In the present context, such variables are of particular interest because they
underscore some difﬁculties that arise in making predictions for the future of langu-
ages. The trajectory for language endangerment will shift depending on what happens
in the domains described by these variables, which means that the already rapid rate
of languages moving into moribundity could accelerate, or to the contrary, could
slow. I describe a set of these variables here to exemplify the point.
4.1. Revitalization and maintenance programs
A recent phenomenon around the world is the appearance of programs designed
to preserve threatened languages. These programs are diverse in their design and in
their aims. Some are geared at developing immersion education, others at expanding
the social domains in which a particular language is spoken, and still others in
actively developing the vocabulary of a language to provide standard terms for new
technologies. Some of these programs are proactive, attempting to stay language
decline before it begins or is in its early stages. Others are trying to recoup the losses
in numbers of speakers that have occurred. In some instances of extreme moribundity
or near extinction, the goal of language revitalization programs is to ensure that at
least a reasonable degree of ﬂuency is being passed on to younger speakers so that
the language does not die (see Hinton  for a good survey).
Because most of these programs are relatively new, few longitudinal studies are
available to assess their impact on language vitality. Certainly, one need not look
hard in order to ﬁnd any number of failed or ﬂailing efforts, yet other programs
have had some measure of success, most famously the Maori and Hawaiian ‘language
nests,’yet there are encouraging reports from elsewhere. For example, the Kahna-
`:ke community in Quebec has seen an increase in the number of children learning
Mohawk due to an immersion school . The number of Welsh speakers has shown
an increase for the ﬁrst time in almost a century due to educational efforts, changes
in language policy and the presence of Welsh on the radio and television . There
968 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
is renewed interest Ainu, a language spoken in Japan that is occasionally described
as extinct or on the brink of extinction, such that the language is beginning to see
an increase in the number of young people with an ability to converse in Ainu .
Of course, the achievements recorded for these revitalization efforts may be short
term. It is fully possible that they are futile attempts to stop the inevitable march
toward language moribundity and death. The polar opposite possibility must also be
considered, however. One might argue that a new political openness in some parts
of the world to the teaching and promotion of small minority languages, combined
with the growing desire by small speech communities to preserve their linguistic
heritage and higher sophistication in knowing how to design effective maintenance
programs makes it more and more likely that at risk and disappearing languages will
not become moribund. Perhaps, more remarkably, many moribund languages may
shift back to vitality.
4.2. The information age and technology
In research on language endangerment and death, we ﬁnd an emerging consensus
regarding a set of distinct eras of human (pre-)history that have variably affected
linguistic diversity. The emerging story goes something like this [27,32]. The earliest
human societies were small bands of hunter-gatherers. They began to spread out and
populate the earth, each new migration into a previously uninhabited region, giving
rise to the potentiality, if not the actuality, of a new linguistic community. Borrowing
terminology of Dixon , who in turn borrowed it from Eldridge and Gould ,we
might call this a period of punctuation. That is, it is a time with rapid diversiﬁcation
of languages, the birth of many new languages, branches, and families. At some
point, the expansion levels off, and we enter a state of equilibrium, again borrowing
the application of the term from Dixon. Estimates of the linguistic diversity of the
time range from 8000 to 20,000 languages.
Roughly 10,000 years ago, the story continues, agriculture appears in scattered
locations around the globe, and in a least a few areas it catches on as the mode of
subsistence de jour, and we see three massive waves of agricultural advance, one
out of Mesopotamia into Eurasia, one spreading across sub-Saharan Africa, and one
engulﬁng east Asia. We have entered another period of punctuation. The spreading
peoples bring their languages with them, and as the wave presses forward, linguistic
diversiﬁcation follows in its wake. During this punctuation, however, the spreading
languages are replacing the languages of indigenous hunter-gathering tongues. We
have the ﬁrst great instance of rapid language death. Therefore, although there is
localized punctuation and certain language families such as Niger-Congo, Sino-Tib-
etan and Indo-European are rapidly diversifying, there is actually a decrease in over-
all linguistic diversity on the planet because the diversiﬁcation cannot keep up with
the language death.
We then again enter a period of equilibrium where the amount of language diversi-
ﬁcation is small, but neither are there social transformations that lead to much langu-
age death. In the 16th century, we enter the next great phase of language death.
European colonization, followed by industrialization and the birth of the nation-state,
969L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
once again redeﬁne the nature of human society, and in this redeﬁnition certain
peoples, cultures and languages come to dominate. The linguistic consequence is
that scores of smaller languages simply disappear. We now sit at the end of this
wave of advance, observing its consequences ﬁrst hand.
This is the context in which most projections about the future of endangered langu-
ages are cast. The expectation is that the measurable decline of linguistic diversity
brought about by the colonial age will continue unabated in the post-colonial age.
If so, we can expect the decline to continue at the current pace, or more likely, at
an accelerated pace. However, if some futurists (notably Tofﬂer ) are correct,
then we have begun a third great wave of social transformation, the information age,
which will so transform the dynamics of our lives, that we will no longer be able
to make the same assumptions about how language users make their choices about
The social patterns of the proposed information age are themselves a matter of
conjecture, which makes language forecasting in light of them all the more problem-
atic. Least controversially, the technology of the information age itself raises some
fascinating possibilities for bolstering at risk and disappearing languages. There now
exists the potential of locally produced educational materials, web sites dedicated to
the promotion of endangered languages, phone and computer connections between
related language communities in remote regions, and so on. All of this places the
practical ability to promote language use more in the hands of local communities
and less in the hands of regional or national authorities . However, the inﬂuence
of the information age could very well be more dramatic than this. As geography
becomes less important, demographic phenomena such as urbanization, which have
been detrimental to endangered languages, may become less prominent or may cease
altogether. The work place and the home may become less distinct (which could be
a boon or a hindrance to the use of local languages). On the clearly negative side,
the information age brings with it an unprecedented ability to spread mass-con-
sumerism and pop-culture, both of which are regularly identiﬁed as agents that under-
mine the value and social structures of other cultures , which are essential to
the continued use of many heritage languages.
4.3. The new world order
The notion of an incipient ‘information age’operates part and parcel with other
sorts of global trends most often grouped together under the rubric of ‘globalization.’
The term is rarely employed with much precision, and as a consequence it is often
difﬁcult to get a handle on just what people mean by it. Loosely speaking, globaliz-
ation is a process of increasing international integration of economic life. The inte-
gration demands certain adjustments of national political structures (often described
as an adoption of ‘neoliberalism,’though at this point probably better taken as a
move in the direction of neoliberalism rather than a wholesale implementation).
Beyond this, there is a lack of consensus on the ultimate effects of globalization,
indeed even whether it is a desirable or deleterious process, especially for developing
970 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
regions of the world. But few deny that globalization has at least some attendant
inﬂuence on culture.
Very little attention has been given to the question of what globalization might
mean for endangered languages. On the one hand, if globalization is taken to be an
“intensiﬁcation of world-wide social relations which link distant localities in such a
way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away,”
and the inﬂuence exerted is asymmetrical in favor of more powerful economic enti-
ties, then the effect on small communities might be profound. Certainly, the pressure
to assimilate economically could, and probably would, extend to linguistic and cul-
tural assimilation, which would lead to language loss unless countered by other vari-
ables (e.g. pride in one’s cultural differences). When Fukuyama  identiﬁes liberal
democracy and the type of capitalism it produces as the “end of history,”he is in
effect suggesting the inevitability of global homogenization. Given the dominance
of the US in the world today, this vision of the new world order all but obliges us
to see the spread of English to all regions of the world. Even the safe languages
will not stay safe indeﬁnitely.
Not all agree with this vision, however. Huntington , for example, predicts
that American hegemony will be placed in check by the emergence of increasingly
powerful alliances of nations. The conglomerations will be based on shared cultural
traits such as religion, social philosophies, and ethnicity (which, of course, is typi-
cally tied to language). This perspective on the future, like Fukuyama’s, takes the
diminishment of the nation-state to be inevitable, but that eventuality does not corre-
late with a cultural homogenizing of the planet (see also Ref. ); on the contrary,
Huntington (p. 64) argues with respect to language that as “power diffuses Babeliz-
ation spreads,”i.e. there will be a push towards linguistic heterogeneity. What is not
clear under this view is whether the Babelization will true of most languages or
solely of large languages (i.e. safe languages). Huntington’s view is predicated on
the emergence of eight ‘civilizations’, which will dominate and determine the geo-
political future of the world. Within each civilization, there might be extreme press-
ure to assimilate culturally, religiously, and linguistically (in fact this is a fairly
accurate picture of what is currently going on).
One last mitigating circumstance in these economic and political shifts is the
emergence of increasingly effective movements for indigenous political rights, which
include linguistic rights. As Skutnabb-Kangas  so incisively puts it: “The linguis-
tic human rights of both indigenous peoples and linguistic minorities, especially edu-
cational language rights, play a decisive role in maintaining and revitalizing langu-
ages.”Certainly, one needs to look only to Europe (as in the case of Welsh and Manx,
mentioned above, but also many other at risk/moribund languages) and Canada 
to ﬁnd impressive gains in linguistic rights that have had an ameliotory effect on
the use of heritage languages. The key issue in this regard is what the long-term
impact of linguistic rights will be. The political right to speak and learn one’s native
language makes long-term viability more possible, but it is no guarantee of vitality.
Economic and cultural forces (for instance, the seemingly irresistible lure of pop
culture for teens around the globe) may prove to dominate in determining langu-
971L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
4.4. The environment
Increasingly, scholars, activists and members of minority communities have raised
the issue of links among language, culture and the environment. For example, Mace
and Pagel  points out that both diversity of languages and diversity of species
are greatest near the equator and decrease as one moves away from it. The correlation
has only begun to be adequately explored, though some [30,32] take it to signal an
inherent link between environment and languages. Hence, Nettle and Romaine state
(p. 46): “The evidence we have presented in this chapter also allows us to understand
why the same amount of habitat destruction in the tropics would lead to many more
biolinguistic extinctions than would occur in the higher latitudes”(emphasis mine).
If the link between language and environment is this direct, then habitat destruction
becomes an important indicator of language use in the future.
Not all research has born out a strong correlation between bio- and linguistic
diversity , and a core assumption of much work on this issue, namely that the
knowledge about a local environment is inextricably connected to the local language
spoken there, is not likely to gain wide acceptance without better empirical justiﬁ-
cation. But even a more indirect association between language and environment
would need to be factored into predictions about long-term language use. Since this
variable has hitherto been ignored in estimates on language diversity in the coming
centuries, there is a need for it to receive far greater attention.
The underlying point of this paper has been a negative one. We do not currently
have a good estimate for how many current languages will survive indeﬁnitely. The
reasons for this fact are multiple. Basic information about the social, political and
economic circumstances of a large number of languages are unavailable. Moreover,
since no one seriously doubts that a signiﬁcant portion of current languages will die
or become moribund in the next century, research on endangered languages has
properly made other areas of investigation a priority such as understanding the causes
of language loss and identifying ways to slow or stop language shift. Both of these
are practical realities. There are also methodological issues that have interfered with
understanding the future of languages, and these have been of more concern than
the above. There has been a lack of critical examination of certain assumptions that
lie behind previous estimates, and there has been a tendency to apply a straightfor-
ward analogy with the past as the primary tool for predicting future linguistic diver-
sity rather than tempering this analogy with observations about how the world is
making a break with the past.
Such observations cover a wide range of disciplines. No individual can hope to
master the range of research necessary to make plausible predictions about coming
changes to the political, economic, and social structures that be. And so a positive
contribution of this paper is to advocate a continued and increased interdisciplinary
dialogue on the issue of linguistic/cultural diversity. As should have been evident
972 L. Whaley / Futures 35 (2003) 961–973
throughout, such dialogue does exist, particularly in matters relating to environmental
destruction and the legal rights of cultural minorities, but it still noticeably lacks
much input from political scientists, sociologists and economists, among others.
A second positive contribution of this paper is that it raises hopes, not falsely I
think, that language and culture moribundity is not as inevitable as it is often depicted
in print. This is not to say that the linguistic future is rosy for at risk and disappearing
languages. On the contrary, I am not optimistic. Rather, it is to say that the future
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