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Extinction fear for languages

By Magdalena Wallmont

About a quarter of the world's languages are under threat, a new study shows.

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(percent of world speakers in parentheses)

1. Mandarin/Chinese (16%)

2. English (8%)

3. Spanish (5%)

4. Arabic (4%)

5. (tie) Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian (3% each)

9. (tie) Japanese, French (2% each)

Source: U.N. Environment Program

LONDON, England (CNN) -- New research on human communication suggests that languages may be more threatened by extinction than previously thought.

Using the same standards applied to bird and mammal populations, professor Bill Sutherland of the University of East Anglia in England examined the threat to the world's 6,800 languages.

His findings -- that nearly 1,700 languages are either endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable -- are reported in the May 15 edition of the science journal, Nature.

"The threats to birds and mammals are well known, but it turns out that languages are far more threatened," Sutherland says.

About 27 percent of the world's languages are threatened, compared to about 9 percent of the bird population, his study shows.

Sutherland also notes similarities in areas where languages and birds were endangered or extinct.

"Countries with the most endangered and extinct languages also have more endangered and extinct birds," he writes in Nature.

Likewise, "areas with high language diversity also have high bird and mammal diversity, and all three show similar relationships to area, latitude (and) area of forest."

Sutherland notes there are 357 languages with fewer than 50 speakers each.

Some of them include Birale in Ethiopia, with 20 speakers; Saami in Sweden, with 50 speakers; and Alawa in Australia with about 20 speakers, according to the book "Ethnologue: Languages of the World," edited by Barbara F. Grimes.

"As languages become rare they become less attractive for people to use and speak," Sutherland notes.

According to the England-based Foundation for Endangered Languages, 83 percent of the world's languages are restricted to single countries, making them more vulnerable to the policies of a single government.

"At the other end of the scale, 10 major languages are the mother tongues of almost half of the world's population," the foundation notes on its Web site.

The foundation attributes the decline and total disappearance of some languages to urbanization, Westernization and the growth of global communications, which "diminish the self-sufficiency of small and traditional communities."

"As each language dies out, science loses a source of data that carry messages in anthropology and prehistory," the foundation says.

The study used the same standards applied to birds, such as the endangered Kirtland's warbler.

Linguistics researcher Graham Dutfield of the University of London also believes that the spread of Western culture plays a part in the decline of languages.

"Western music and culture in all corners of the Earth is a factor in the love of the modern and the disdain for the traditional, resulting in the abandonment of languages that seem no longer relevant or useful," he says.

Yet Dutfield doesn't blame English for the threat to other languages.

"Just because English is the world's most widespread language," he says, "does not mean that when people no longer speak a language, they are turning to English."

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