Who Said Languages Don’t Die? Here Are 3 Powerful Factors That Kill Languages

Language Death

The number of languages that are spoken by the population is estimated to be over 6.000 languages. The most significant fact is that this number has radically declined. A similar situation has been found in Brazil, where linguists indicated that the number of languages that were spoken in the 15th century is estimated to be 1175 languages. But, nowadays, the number has been reduced to less than 200 languages. One of the intriguing questions that linguists ask is how do languages die? This article talks about some of the factors that may lead to the death of a language.

Factors that put people in the physical danger

These factors have a direct and immediate threat to people’s life. Many languages nowadays have come to be endangered, moribund, or extinct as a result of people’s death or the reduction in the number of people who speak them. Natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanic eruptions) can wipe out and destroy communities; especially small communities that exist in isolated areas or islands. One of the most significant earthquakes in recent times is the  Indian Ocean earthquake which took place in 2004. It is the third-largest earthquake in the history of humanity and has caused a huge tsunami that killed 229.000 people.

Other factors that may lead to the death of a language are famine, drought, wars, and diseases…etc. Famine and drought are examples of problems that a considerable number of third world countries suffer from. A significant number of people die annually because they are not able to provide enough food…according to David crystal:

‘’In the 1983–5 Sahel drought in East and South Africa, UN agencies estimated that some 22 million were affected in over 20 countries. In the 1991–2 Somalia drought, a quarter of the children under the age of 5 died’’ (2002, p.73).

Wars are the results of political and ideological conflicts between two or more countries which also lead to the death of many people (the First World War and the Second World War are concrete examples). Diseases also have been identified to have a critical impact on individuals in particular communities.  According to the joint U.N. program of AIDS:

“33.4 million of people were affected at the end of 1998 and the number is obviously increasing’’.

Factors that influence culture

These factors cause language death through a gradual and slow change in the language spoken by people. They have nothing to do with the safety of people. The latter might remain alive and well. But, their language might undergo problematic situations. One of the most significant factors to mention here is cultural assimilation.

Cultural assimilation refers to the situation in which a certain culture is influenced by another culture and as a result, people will adopt the new culture and the new language. Cultural assimilation consists of three main stages that take approximately three generations. Check the diagram below:

The first stage is usually made up of pressures on people to acquire the dominant language. The pressure might have different sources. It could be political, social or economic. It might be top-down that is to say: from the government to the micro-level or bottom-up which takes the form of trends or peer groups. Social pressure is highly associated with social life and the social circumstances that impose on people to learn a certain language in a certain context. For example, the case of Japanese immigrants who immigrated to the united nation of America finds themselves obliged to learn English because it is spoken everywhere and by everybody.

The political pressure may be seen from different perspectives. It could refer to the process of demographic submersion (colonization). When a certain country colonizes another country and imposes its language. The best example to mention here is Morocco which was colonized by France in 1912.

During the era of colonialism, France introduced French as a high variety to be adopted by the Moroccan government. In the beginning, it couldn’t compete with Arabic in the religious contexts, but later it did become the language of education and administration and was learned by small minority.

Another instance of political pressure is manifested in the United States of America where the government promotes the use of English through educational institutions TV, radio, and media. There is some sort of socio-economic and political force that converge to make  English a national language and increase the number of people who make use of English.

The role of globalization

In the literature, globalization has proven that it remarkably contributes to the death or the endangerment of many languages. Globalization has made the world more unified and more uniform. It enabled more exchange to take place between different cultures, communities, and distant countries. It also led to the replacement of some languages (especially English) over others. This has been seen through the policies and the procedures adopted by many countries where English is chosen as a means of education.

Globalization affects many communities and many languages through the phenomenon of McDonaldization (the spread of McDonald’s stores around the world). This basically influences people’s lifestyle, because they no longer commit to their cultural principles and values. They unconsciously assimilate into the American culture. Furthermore, the worldwide diffusion of Hollywood movies is another aspect of globalization, which has profoundly changed people’s culture and made them more open to the American culture and English as a world language.


  1. Crystal, David. 2002. Language death. Cambridge university press. 73.
  2. Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp1-2, 11, 27-28.
  3. Aitchinson, Jean. (1991). Language change: progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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