Are you curious about the rarest of the rare where languages are concerned? In this post, we’ll dive into the unique realm of rare languages, specifically the 15 least spoken languages on Earth.
These linguistic gems hold stories that have been whispered through generations. Get ready to uncover some hidden treasures as we take a closer look at these endangered and lesser-known languages that deserve our attention and appreciation.
Before we start, though, let me give you a heads-up: given so many of these languages are spoken by tiny and isolated indigenous communities, I often couldn’t find images of their speakers to pair with each language.
So I often had to resort to adding a photo of the landscape where these communities live. Hopefully, this will help you picture their unique ways of living.
Top rare languages on the planet in numbers
|Language||Number of speakers||Where is it spoken?|
|Kawishana||1||State of Amazonas, Brazil|
|Tanema||1||Vanikoro Island, Solomon Islands|
|Taushiro||1||Administrative region of Loreto, Peru|
|Lemerig||2||Vanua Lava Island, Vanuatu|
|Chemehuevi||3||Arizona-California border, USA|
|Njerep||4||Adamawa Region, Cameroon|
|Liki||11||Province of Papua, Indonesia|
|Ongota||12||Southern Region, Ethiopia|
|Tsuutʼina||̴ 80||Province of Alberta, Canada|
|Mudburra||̴ 90||Northern Territory, Australia|
|Paakantyi||̴ 110||State of New South Wales, Australia|
|Sentinelese||̴ 250||North Sentinel Island, India|
|Jedek||̴ 280||States of Pahang, Kelantan, and Terengganu, Malaysia|
|Pirahã||̴ 250-380||State of Amazonas, Brazil|
What are the rarest languages on Earth?
The Kawishana language is a critically endangered indigenous language spoken by just one person in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Rooted in the cultural heritage of the local indigenous community, it is found in remote regions of the Amazon rainforest.
Unfortunately, the language is at serious risk of disappearing due to factors like modernization, dominant language influence, and cultural assimilation. Efforts are being made to preserve and revitalize the language through documentation, oral history recording, and educational initiatives.
Tanema language is spoken by just one individual on Vanikoro Island, which is part of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
This unique language is specific to the Tanema community and holds immense cultural and historical significance. Vanikoro Island is a remote and secluded location, which has contributed to the preservation of this distinct linguistic heritage.
Yet the endangerment of the language is primarily due to factors such as language shift, intermarriage, and the influence of other languages. The existence of a single speaker highlights the urgent need for action to ensure the survival and future of the Tanema language.
The Taushiro language is also spoken by just one person in Loreto. This region of Peru is located in the northeastern part of the country, near the border with Ecuador.
The Taushiro language has faced significant endangerment over the last century. With only one fluent speaker remaining, the language is at great risk of extinction.
Spoken by just two people on the Vanua Lava Island in Vanuatu, located in the South Pacific like the Solomon Islands, Lemerig is considered highly endangered. That’s a shame because it carries with it the rich traditions, stories, and knowledge of the people who speak it.
While Lemerig is spoken by only two individuals, it serves as a reminder of the linguistic diversity that exists in our world. These rare languages contribute to the tapestry of human expression and deserve our attention and support.
The Chemehuevi language, spoken by three people near the border of Arizona and California in the US, is an intriguing Native American language that belongs to the Numic language family and is traditionally associated with the Chemehuevi people, who have inhabited the region for centuries.
It has faced significant challenges in recent years, which has led to its critically endangered status. Organizations and communities are working tirelessly to document the language, create educational materials, and pass down its knowledge to future generations.
Nestled between the stunning landscapes of the Southwestern United States, the language is intimately connected to the rich history and traditions of the Chemehuevi people. It serves as a linguistic link to their ancestral lands and provides insights into their way of life and unique worldview.
The Njerep language is primarily associated with the Njerep people, who reside in the diverse Adamawa region of Cameroon, which is known for its cultural diversity and linguistic richness.
Unfortunately, it is now critically endangered. With only four speakers remaining, the language is on the verge of extinction. The challenges it faces include limited intergenerational transmission, reduced community support, and replacement by neighboring languages.
Pawnee is an indigenous language with deep roots in the Great Plains region of North America, which boasts expansive grasslands, diverse wildlife, and a vast cultural heritage. Historically, the Pawnee people inhabited areas of present-day Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Yet due to historical events such as forced relocations, the Pawnee community is now mainly concentrated in Oklahoma. The Pawnee language is currently classified as endangered. With only ten speakers remaining, efforts are being made to preserve it.
The Pawnee Nation and language revitalization organizations are working together to document and teach the language, ensuring its survival for future generations.
The Liki language is spoken by eleven people in the Indonesian province of Papua. It belongs to the Trans-New Guinea language family, which is known for its linguistic diversity in the region.
Liki is closely tied to the cultural heritage of the local communities in Papua. It is primarily spoken in remote areas within the province, where the Liki people have maintained their traditional way of life.
It hails from the beautiful landscapes of Papua, which are marked by dense rainforests, mountains, and rivers. The region is known for its biodiversity, including unique flora and fauna.
The Ongota language, spoken by only twelve people in the Southern Region of Ethiopia, is considered one of the most isolated languages in the world, with no known linguistic relatives.
Ongota has a mysterious past. Its origins and development are not well understood, and it has faced significant challenges due to limited documentation and a small number of speakers.
It is associated with the remote and rugged landscapes of the Southern Region of Ethiopia. The area features mountains, plateaus, and diverse flora and fauna.
The Tsuut’ina language is spoken by about 80 people in the Canadian province of Alberta. It is a member of the Athabaskan language family, which is predominantly found in North America.
The history of the Tsuut’ina language traces back many generations, with its roots embedded in the ancestral lands of the Tsuut’ina people. These lands, located near the Rocky Mountains and the city of Calgary, have shaped the community’s way of life.
Yet like many Indigenous languages, Tsuut’ina is endangered. The number of fluent speakers has declined over the 20th century, posing a major threat to its survival.
Mudburra is an Indigenous Australian language belonging to the Pama-Nyungan language family, which encompasses various languages across Oceania.
Spoken by approximately 90 people in the Northern Territory of Australia, it is associated with the Mudburra people, who have a rich history deeply intertwined with the land they inhabit.
Their traditional lands are located in the Victoria River District, an area known for its stunning natural landscapes and diverse wildlife.
The Paakantyi language is spoken by around 110 people in the state of New South Wales, Australia. It is an Indigenous Australian language belonging to the wider Barkindji language family.
The Paakantyi people have a rich cultural heritage deeply connected to the land along the Darling River and its surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, Paakantyi, like so many other Indigenous languages, is endangered. The number of fluent speakers has declined over time due to colonization and the forced assimilation policies that impacted indigenous languages across Australia.
Sentinelese is spoken on North Sentinel Island, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in India. The Sentinelese people have lived on the island for thousands of years, maintaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and largely remaining isolated from the outside world.
Due to the isolated nature of the Sentinelese community, little is known about the specifics of their language, as very few outsiders have been able to establish meaningful contact with them.
The language is highly endangered because of the small population of speakers and the isolation of the community. The Sentinelese people fiercely protect their island and maintain a hostile stance towards outsiders.
Given the remote and protected nature of North Sentinel Island, the preservation of the Sentinelese language and culture largely depends on maintaining their autonomy and safeguarding their land from external interference.
Jedek is a language spoken by fewer than 300 people in the Malaysian states of Pahang, Kelantan, and Terengganu,
It is associated with the Menriq and Batek peoples, who live mostly within Taman Negara National Park, and belongs to the Aslian language family, which is part of the Austroasiatic language family.
Jedek is classified as an endangered language due to a number of factors, including the small number of speakers and the influence of other languages in the region.
The younger generations are increasingly shifting towards using Malay or other widely spoken languages, resulting in a decline in the use and transmission of Jedek.
Pirahã is primarily spoken by 250 to 380 of the Pirahã people, who inhabit the Maici River region in northern Brazil, in the heart the Amazon rainforest.
The language has gained attention from linguists and anthropologists due to its distinctive features. One notable characteristic is its lack of certain grammatical features found in many other languages. For example, Pirahã does not have numbers, color terms, or a system of tenses.
Pirahã has a rich oral tradition and is passed down through generations via spoken communication. Its complex phonetic system includes a variety of distinct sounds.
The Pirahã language and culture face challenges in terms of endangerment. Contact with other languages and external influences pose threats to its preservation.
Why are so many languages endangered?
It’s quite fascinating how languages evolve and change over time. But unfortunately, not all languages get the chance to thrive. There are a few reasons behind the endangerment of languages, which makes this a complex issue.
One big factor is the influence of globalization. With the world becoming more interconnected, dominant languages like English, Spanish, and Chinese take center stage. As a result, smaller languages struggle to keep up and may gradually lose speakers.
Think about cultural assimilation too. When communities are pressured to conform to the majority culture and language, their native languages often face marginalization or even abandonment—in which case they become dead languages.
Another thing to consider is the impact of displacement and migration. When communities are uprooted from their traditional lands or forced to move, language transmission can be disrupted.
The younger generation may find themselves in new environments, adapting to new languages and cultural practices, which might lead to a decline in their ancestral languages.
Urbanization and industrialization also contribute to language endangerment. As societies go through rapid urban development, traditional ways of life can disappear. People move to cities, seeking better opportunities, and in the process, their languages may take a backseat.
It’s worth mentioning that inadequate language documentation and preservation efforts can worsen the problem. If a language isn’t properly documented or supported, its speakers may not have the resources or means to pass it on to future generations.
I can’t help but feel a sense of awe for the incredible linguistic diversity that exists in our small world. These rare languages, though at risk of disappearing, hold within them unique cultural identities, knowledge systems, and a deep connection to the communities that cherish them.
It’s essential that we recognize the value and importance of preserving and revitalizing these endangered languages, not only for the sake of linguistic diversity but also for the preservation of human heritage.
Whether it’s through learning, advocating, or engaging with communities, we can all play a role in ensuring the survival and flourishing of endangered languages.