Withering Words: America's Endangered Languages

Travel Features America
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As I write this, there are more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth. Despite efforts being made by National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project and the Living Tongues Institute, linguists predict that nearly half of those will disappear within the next century, as they give way to global languages, like English and Mandarin, which afford greater opportunities to speakers.

If you’re keen on listening to these languages at the source before they disappear, you’ll need to do some planning but the payoff may be worth it; many of these languages are spoken in the world’s least hospitable but most breathtaking places. We put together a guide to some of these destinations and what to see while you’re there—if you can reach them.

Our Endangered Languages series will cover seven destinations and countless languages over the next three weeks, starting with The Americas.

Mojave Desert, United States

Language: Chemehuevi is part of the Numic branch of the Southern Paiute languages, of which few speakers remain. Chemehuevi speakers lived primarily in the eastern Mojave Desert and later the Chemehuevi Valley along the Colorado River in California.

What it’s known for: The desert is nestled between the Colorado River on the east and the lush Tehachapi Mountains on the west. It encompasses Death Valley—the lowest, driest, and hottest area in North America—and Las Vegas, an area known for its own lows.

What to see: Colorado Plateau, known for its canyons, high mesas and plateaus; and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, consisting of large red rock formations and sandstone peaks called the Keystone Thrust, are both popular among hikers and rock climbers. Native American artifacts remain today throughout the area.

Getting there: Las Vegas is in the Mojave Desert, as are the smaller towns that make up the northern border of the Greater Los Angeles area. Fly into either of these and rent a car.
Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty

Chipaya, Bolivia

Language: Bolivia is home to two quickly disappearing languages. In the southern highlands, Chipaya is a language spoken by 1,000 to 1,500 people, and in the Andes, Kallawaya is a secret language spoken by herbalist healers who have passed down their oral knowledge since at least the days of the Incan Empire in the 15th century.

What it’s known for: From the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Basin rainforest, the Atacama Desert and the salt flats, Bolivia’s varied terrain makes it one of the world’s top trekking destinations. Its thriving biodiversity makes it an exceptional stop for nature lovers.

What to see: Chipaya is spoken in the area south of the crystalline Lake Titicaca, the continent’s largest lake, which Bolivia shares with Peru. There, on the shores of a smaller lake, Lake Coipasa, thousands of flamingos settle alongside the Chipaya people. Their town, Chipaya, has been declared a national monument by the local government. Also nearby are the Coipasa Salt Flats, southwest of the city of Oruro near the Chilean border. Seated at an elevation of 12,073 feet, they are Bolivia’s second largest salt flats (after the Uyuni salt flats, which you might as well also see).

Getting there: American Airlines, Avianca, and LAN Airlines all fly from major cities in the U.S. to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Paved, asphalt roads connect most large cities. If you’re looking to trek off the beaten path in the Andes, you’ll have to hire a private car in La Paz and be patient—the mountainous roads are slow going and often unpaved. To get to the arid and sandy lands of the Uru Chipaya, you would almost certainly have to hire a guide who’ll lead you on a trek by ATV.

Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.