Red List of Languages

The IUCN Red List of Species

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is a system widely used by biologists to assess the conservation status of plant and animal species. It is based on a set of categories for ranking species according to their risk of extinction. There are seven categories ranging from Least Concern to Extinct. Those species which are categorized as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered are considered to be threatened.

The criteria used to categorize the conservation status of a species into one of the IUCN Red List categories include a species’ population size, its rate of reduction (if in decline), its range size and rate of decline or fragmentation, existing and future threats, or a combination of these. It is possible to apply some of these criteria to languages and assess
their threat status according to either the number of mother-tongue speakers, their rate of decline, or a combination of the two. That is what we have done with the Red List of Languages.

The Red List of Languages

Other systems for assessing the status of languages categorize them according to how successfully they are being transmitted to younger generations. This is good reasoning, but we apply categories analogous to those used by the IUCN Red List—the overall observed or projected decline (if any) in the number of speakers—to create a Red List of Languages. Both approaches ultimately reckon endangerment to languages; our Red List approach focuses on the end result rather than the direct causes.

Comparing extinction risk

We set out to measure, monitor and evaluate biocultural diversity; applying the IUCN Red List criteria to languages allows us to assess their threat status on the same basis as species, and make comparisons on a quantified basis. Comparing the Red Lists shows that languages as a group are at least as highly threatened as any group of vertebrate species.

Examples of results: (above) Comparison of Red List status of languages with those of four vertebrate categories;  (below) Conservation status of language families.


What’s next? Red List of Languages 2020

We are planning a global Red List assessment of languages for 2020. It will include all 7,000+ of the world's languages, allowing us to make comprehensive Red List comparisons globally, regionally, by language family, and more. Here too we will develop new data visualizations to help people understand the extinction risks to species and languages and to identify which languages and language families are most endangered and important to monitor. In addition, we will develop a new list of EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) languages, that identifies those languages that are both phylogenetically distinctive and highly threatened, and therefore of special conservation concern. EDGE languages will comparable to EDGE species.

Learn more about the Red List of Languages

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