The Database of Endangered Languages in Japan offers a wealth of linguistic and audio materials of endangered languages and dialects spoken in Japan. It is one of the research results of two projects conducted at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, General Study for Research and Conservation of Endangered Dialects in Japan, operating between 2010 and 2015, and Endangered Languages and Dialects in Japan, operating since 2016 and lasting until 2021. The database contains to this date more than 10000 basic vocabulary data points covering more than a dozen of endangered dialects and many oral texts (2019/02/19). It is constantly being updated and expanded.
Many minority languages all over the world are facing the threat of extinction. According to some estimates, it is predicted that out of the 6000 or so languages spoken in the world today, only 1/10th or even 1/20th of these will still be around in 100 years. There are many factors contributing to this spectacular loss in language diversity: urbanization, which empties rural areas of population, wars and conflicts, which dislocate whole communities, or simply discrimination against what is considered "minor" languages. All of these are conspiring to make communities of speakers stop using, and, ultimately, lose their traditional language.
Sometimes, we hear the following opinions about endangered languages. "The extinction of a language is the result of complex socio-historical processes, which we cannot control, and as such, it cannot be helped nor reversed". Or, "it is more practical to have a single, unified language", or "there is no need to protect endangered languages", and so forth.
But we need to remember how language diversity arose in the first place. Languages form slowly and are uniquely shaped by the way its speakers live and think, so that losing a language also means losing the knowledge and wisdom it has crystallized and accumulated through the ages. Just as biological diversity enriches the earth, so does language diversity humanity.
In 2009, UNESCO published an atlas of endangered languages and sounded the alarm about the rapid loss of linguistic diversity. Among the 2,500 endangered languages listed in the atlas, 8 are spoken in Japan: Ainu, Hachijo, Amami, Kunigami, Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. But these are not the only languages that are facing extinction in Japan. Traditional dialects, which due to their proximity to Standard Japanese are not considered as separate languages, are also endangered. This project aims at: 1. documenting all endangered languages and dialects spoken in Japan, 2. raising awareness about linguistic diversity in Japan, and 3. support revitalization efforts by local communities.
Nobuko Kibe (Professor at the Language Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics)