Surprising European languages that are at risk of extinction

November 10, 2023

Did you know that out of the approximately 6,000 languages that are spoken in the world today, it’s estimated that at least 43% of them are endangered or vulnerable to some extent, and will likely disappear in this century?

What’s even more surprising is that amongst them are common languages spoken in and around the British Isles, and other thriving European countries.

At Busuu, we’d love to encourage everyone to keep these languages alive for as long as possible, or to simply hear and enjoy them, before it’s too late.

Here are the 12 most surprising European languages that are at risk of extinction

  1. Manx – Critically endangered (2,000 speakers)
  2. Cornish – Critically endangered (8,000-13,000 speakers)
  3. Jersey French – Severely endangered (2,000 speakers)
  4. Guernsey French – Severely endangered (1,300-1,400 speakers)
  5. Swiss German – Severely endangered (4,930,000 speakers)
  6. Irish – Definitely endangered (77,185 speakers)
  7. Pontic Greek – Definitely endangered (200,000 speakers)
  8. Welsh – Vulnerable (750,000 speakers)
  9. West Flemish – Vulnerable (1,000,000 speakers)
  10. Scots – Vulnerable (1,500,000 speakers)
  11. Belarusian – Vulnerable (4,000,000 speakers)
  12. Eastern Slovak – Vulnerable (Number of speakers unknown)

On this list are common languages spoken in and around the British Isles – Irish, Welsh and Scots. 

Cornish, Manx, Guernsey French, and Jersey French also make the list. Between them, these UK languages are only spoken by around 3.5% of the nation’s population!

In Europe, variants of Flemish, Greek, German and Slovak are also vulnerable or endangered.

Belarusian is also classed as ‘Vulnerable’ as despite being spoken by around four million people, most Belarusians speak Russian at home. 

Swiss German is the most at-risk European language on our list, and is classed as ‘Severely Endangered’. Although it’s estimated that around five million people speak the language in Switzerland, it is mostly by grandparents and older generations. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses a ranking system with six levels to determine how at-risk each language is around the world.

This system labels each language as either ‘Safe’, ‘Vulnerable’, ‘Definitely Endangered’, ‘Severely Endangered’, ‘Critically Endangered’ and ‘Extinct’. 

Rather than being decided by the number of speakers worldwide, the labels are mostly determined by the ‘intergenerational transmission’ of a language – in other words, by whether older generations pass on the language to younger generations. 

For example, the language is safer if most children speak the language at home, and more vulnerable if the youngest speakers are grandparents and older. 

Busuu’s Lead Language Expert, Federico Espinosa, says: “Many might be shocked to discover that the more ‘famous’ regional dialects are dying, but sadly it’s unsurprising. 

“People no longer choose to live their lives in the same regions as their families  – globalisation means people move around and they don’t pass on their regional dialect.

“It’s great to see that some are committed to preserving their native tongue. The Welsh government have set themselves ambitious targets to double the number of native speakers by 2050. This is a really positive step forward.”

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