A Teacher's Guide to Endangered Languages

Analyze the life, evolution and death of languages. Examine the differences between languages and dialects, and engage in discussions of the connections between language and culture in this unit plan from the PBS Teachers Resources page.  Includes a Teacher's Guide, detailed unit/lesson plan, and video clips. Through map activities, glimpses into remote, native peoples around the world, discussion questions, and video clips, students study how language grows and changes and sometimes dies out. These ideas are then applied to the changes in the English language and bring up the opportunity to debate whether the United States should adopt a national language to push the use of English only in this country. Could be extended to include persuasive writing or speaking.

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
CLE 3003.1.4
Consider language as a reflection of its time and culture.
GLE 0701.1.3
Understand and use correctly a variety of sentence structures.
Alignment of this item to academic standards is based on recommendations from content creators, resource curators, and visitors to this website. It is the responsibility of each educator to verify that the materials are appropriate for your content area, aligned to current academic standards, and will be beneficial to your specific students.
Essential and guiding questions: 
  • Why should we care if Chulym or Chemehuevi or Kallawaya survive? Would you feel the same way if English or your native language were on the verge of extinction?
  • Do you agree with the UNESCO declaration statements that "All language communities have equal rights" (Article 10, section 1) and "Everyone has the right to use his/her language in the personal and family sphere" (Article 12, section 2)? Explain.
  • Latin is called a "dead language," and in a way this is true: There are no speakers left who learned Latin as a native language. Latin is survived by its descendants, including Spanish, Italian, and French; and Latin is taught in schools. Do you think Latin is dead? Ainu is a language spoken by just a few people in the far north of Japan. There are no languages known to be related to Ainu. If Ainu ceases to be spoken, do you think it will be dead in the same way as Latin?
  • Do you see problems in using biological metaphors—death and extinction—to refer to the loss of languages? Why do you imagine communities connected to endangered languages might have problems with those metaphors? What are some similarities and differences between these biological processes and language loss?
  • A critical stage in language death is reached when children stop learning the language. Discuss the kinds of conditions that would make children want or not want to learn a language spoken by their parents or grandparents.
  • The U.S. has speakers of various languages besides English. In June 200, a sign outside of Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia read, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH."' How does this sign relate to what you learned about the treatment of endangered languages in The Linguists? Did you know that the language spoken by the original inhabitants of what is now Philadelphia was not English but a now endangered Native American language called Lenape?

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: