There are an estimated 6,000 languages in the world. Just three of these languages, Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish and English, are spoken by over 25% of the global population. The majority of work conducted by business translation agencies relates to fewer than 100 languages. Around 1,000 are endangered languages, with very few native speakers and, every year, several become dying languages as the last speakers of that language die.
There are differing schools of thought regarding what should be done about endangered languages. Some people believe they should be preserved as an important part of an area’s heritage and culture. Others consider things should be allowed to follow their natural course, so if a language gradually ceases to be spoken it should be left to die, having reached the end of its useful life.
Within the United Kingdom and its neighbours there are several minority languages.
Although it was in decline for many years, Gaelic has, in recent times, experienced a revival, and is taught more extensively in schools. In Edinburgh there is now a Gaelic school where pupils learn all their subjects through Gaelic rather than English.
Although it has a relatively large number of speakers, with over half a million able to speak Welsh, it is nonetheless experiencing a gradual decline. This is despite numerous Welsh speaking schools, and a TV channel with Welsh programmes, and programmes tailored for the local audience with Welsh subtitling.
With an estimated 400 speakers, Cornish or Kernewek is very much a minority language. It died out as a spoken language during the late eighteenth century, but was revived in the twentieth century and has received EU funding.
Although not part of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man has been heavily influenced by its larger neighbour, with a high level of immigration by English people, which may have contributed to the decline in the use of the local language, Manx. There are believed to be only 100 speakers of Manx today.
Saving a language can be seen as a means of avoiding a homogenised society. It is more a case of preserving a local identity than preserving a tool for communication. Bilingual literature and signage can be costly for a small country as specialist translation agencies will be required to translate into the local language. However, some large businesses from outside the area may find it a useful marketing tool, appealing to the local population by using their language, even if it is not necessary for communication.
Languages are dynamic, living things that evolve with time and, ultimately, language is about communication. Whether or not other local languages are taught and used on paperwork and road signs, it is the language that people choose to speak on a day-to-day basis that will be the language to survive the longest.