Partnership between UNESCO, Discovery Communications, Inc. and UN Works Programme on endangered languages


The purpose of this project is to raise awareness of language endangerment and disappearance, and the need to safeguard our linguistic diversity. In 2002-2004, UNESCO, in partnership with the Discovery Communications, INC. and the UN Works Programme, produced a series of short-form programmes on various endangered languages throughout the world.

The eighteen short-form programmes (vignettes) were first aired globally on the Discovery Channel on 21 February 2003, the International Mother Language Day. The stories were filmed in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Gabon, Guatemala, India, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Panama, Scotland, South Africa and Sweden.

AFRICA: Baka, ‡Khomani

Language: Baka

The Baka in Gabon form a group of forest people (pygmies) living in the northern border area to Cameroon - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Gabon
No. of speakers in Gabon: between 3200 and 5000

The Baka in Gabon form a group of forest people living in the northern border area to Cameroon. They are part of the large group of Baka found in Southwest Cameroon and Northeast of Congo Brazzaville. They migrated to Gabon in recent history.
Like other groups of African pygmies (Efe, Sua, Aka, Babenzele, etc.), the Baka are traditionally nomadic, even though they are undergoing a process of slow sedentarization under the influence of multiple factors, such as massive deforestation, which deprives them of the natural and symbolic resources essential for their biological and cultural survival.
The language of the Baka is Ubangian-based in contrast to other forest people groups in Gabon, whose languages are Bantu-based.

Language: N׀uu (‡Khomani)

‡Khomani speakers are part of the San ethnic group, the aboriginal people of South Africa - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in South Africa
No. of speakers in South Africa : 8

At one time spread over almost the whole of South Africa, in 1930 the ‡Khomani San moved to the Central and Northern Kalahari Desert and adjacent districts. In 1973, the last San communities were evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, with their native tongue, N׀uu, being declared officially extinct. In 1994, South Africa became a democratic country. A new law allowed people to reclaim the land they had lost on the basis of race since 1913. With the help of the South African San Institute the ‡Khomani community put in a claim against the National Park. In 1999, the government awarded them 40,000ha of land outside the Park and another 25,000ha inside the Park. At the end of the 1990s, the first known surviving N׀uu speaker was identified. Since then research has found additional speakers. They constitute some of the few surviving indigenous South African San. Most ‡Khomani nowadays speak fluently Khoekhoegowap (Nama) and/or Afrikaans as primary language. The use of the languages differs according to the context: N׀uu is used with other N׀uu speakers, Nama with friends and children, Afrikaans with adults and outsiders, sometimes with children, and for church. Literacy is in Afrikaans.
San also live in Botswana and Namibia.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC: Ainu, Bunuba, Idu Mishmi, Kadazandusun, Kayan Murik, Lepcha, Sharda Script

Language: Ainu

The Ainu population of Hokkaido is 24,381. Most of the people speak only Japanese and are integrated into Japanese culture - download video
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Filmed in Hokkaido, Japan
No. of speakers in Japan : between 15 and 150

According to the survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government in 1984, the Ainu population of Hokkaido was 24,381. Originally residing throughout Japan’s four major islands, the Ainu today live principally in Hokkaido and Kuril Islands (formerly also on south Sakhalin Island, Russia).
Ainu has not been found to be related linguistically to any other language, even though a number of theories about its origins have been advances by scholars. Sources list up to 19 dialects of Ainu. The last speaker of the Sakhalin dialect died in 1994.
In the 1980s, the Ainu experienced an ethnic revivial, comparable to that of the Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and Arctic peoples. In 1997, the Japanese government officially recognized the Ainu as an indigenous Japanese minority group.
Src:; Encyclopedia Britannica; Gabor, Wilhelm, “The Ainu in Japan: Ethnic Identity and Cultural Definitions”, Pro Ethnologia 11, Tartu, 2001;

Language: Bunuba

Bunuba, an Australian Aboriginal language, has no more then 100 speakers left, most of whom are older people. The Bunuba elders try to pass on the ancestral language through telling stories as it was done in the past. - download video
© Discovery Communications, Inc.

Filmed in Australia
No. of speakers in Australia : 40

The Bunuba language is spoken in Western Australia, from the township of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region, north along the Fitzroy River to Jijidju (Diamond Gorge) and to Miluwindi (King Leopold Ranges) and Napier Range in the west. There are fewer than a hundred Bunuba speakers, most of whom are older people now living in Junjuwa, an Aboriginal community in Fitzroy Crossing. The Bunuba elders are concerned that the language is not being spoken by the younger people. In the past, stories were passed on by parents and grandparents, who told them to the children around campfires at night. This is one of the ways the Bunuba people have kept their history. It is only recently that the Bunuba language has been written down and a first major publication of Bunuba stories edited. Over the past decade many Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region have moved back to their traditional country and established communities.

Language: Idu Mishmi

Idu Mishmi is spoken by the Mishmis of the central Arunachal Pradesh - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Arunachal Pradesh, India
No. of speakers in India : under 12 000

The Mishmis occupy the northeastern tip of the central Arunachal Pradesh in the Dibang valley and Lohit districts. Their areas are located in the Mishmi Hills which extend between the Dibang and Lohita rivers. The Mishmi Hills thus cover a vast expanse of hilly area beyond Sadiya in Assam valley. The Mishmis are divided into three groups on the basis of their geographical distribution: Idu Mishmi, Digaru Mishmi and Miju Mishmi. The main occupation is agriculture, and the traditional religion is Hindu.

Src: H.M. Bareh, “Encyclopedia of North-East India, ” New Delhi: Mittal Publications. New Delhi;

Language : Kadazandusun

The Kadazandusun language has 13 notable dialects with more than 300,000 speakers living in Malaysia - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Sabah, Malaysia
No. of speakers in Malaysia : 300,000

The Kadazandusun language community is the largest language community of Sabah, Malaysia. The Kadazandusun language has 13 notable dialects with more than 300,000 speakers living in the districts of Ranau, Tambunan, Penampang, Papar, Tuaran, Kota Belud, and those parts of Kota Kinabalu outside the city. Speakers of the Kadazandusun language also live in Beafort, Kinabatangan, Labuk-Sugut, and Keningau districts, with some migrant villages in the districts of Tenom and Tawau. They are traditionally farmers occupying the fertile plains of the west coast and the interior.
Src: Teo, Albert C. K. “SABAH, land of the sacred mountain”, by Albert C.K. Teo , Kota Kinabalu: Sabah Handicraft Centre, 1988

Language: Kayan Murik

Kayan Murik is spoken in the Sarawak State of Malaysia by a small indigenous community living along the Baram River - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Malaysia
No. of speakers in Malaysia : under 1300

Kayan Murik is spoken in the Sarawak State of Malaysia by a small indigenous community of 1,200 to 1,300 speakers living along the Baram River.

Cultivators and sedentary, the Kayan have active trading and exchange relationship with various groups up and down the Baram. They are great craftsmen and well known for their boat-making skills, which they carve from a single block of belian - the strongest of the tropical hardwoods.


Language: Lepcha

Lepcha is considered to be one of the aboriginal languages of Sikkim, a northern region of India - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in India
No. of speakers in India : 30 000

The Lepcha language is spoken in Sikkim and Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India. The 1991 Indian census counted 39,342 speakers of Lepcha. Lepcha is considered to be one of the indigenous languages of the area in which it is spoken. Unlike most other languages of the Himalayas, the Lepcha people have their own indigenous script (the world’s largest collection of old Lepcha manuscripts is kept in Leiden, with over 180 Lepcha books).

Lepcha is the language of instruction in some schools in Sikkim. In comparison to other Tibeto-Burman languages, it has been given considerable attention in the literature. Nevertheless, many important aspects of the Lepcha language and culture still remain undescribed.


Language: Sharda Script

Sharda is original script of Kashmir. Only a few people today master this script download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Srinagar, India

Sharda is the original script of Kashmir. It evolved from the Western branch of Brahmi nearly 1200 years ago, when the language of Kashmir was developing into Kashmiri, with its peculiar intonations, variations and sounds. As a result, Sharda was imprinted with these vocal peculiarities, and became unfit for Sanskrit. Sharda, however, continued to be used for writing Sanskrit in Kashmir.

Sharda script was much in use in Kashmir, but also in North Western India (Gilgit etc.), the Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and even in Central Asia. Almost all the ancient Sanskrit literature of Kashmir is written in this script.

EUROPE & NORTH AMERICA: Haida, Istro-Romanian, Karaim, Saami, Scots Gaelic

Language: Haida

Filmed in Canada
No. of speakers in Canada : between 40 and 165

The Haida are North American Indians living on the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia and on part of Prince of Wales Island, southeast Alaska, which some Haida groups invaded, probably early in the 18th century.

Traditional Haida society was organized into many single matriclan villages composed of one to several house groups. Matriclans, headed by hereditary chiefs, were land-owning and ceremonial units that were divided into Eagle and Raven subgroups (moieties). Expert fishermen and seafarers, the Haida depended heavily on halibut, black cod, sea mammals, mollusks, and other sea species in addition to their freshwater salmon catches. The abundant red cedars were used to make huge dugout canoes, multifamily plank houses, numerous splendidly carved TOTEM poles as memorials and as portal poles, and carved boxes and dishes. Chiefs gave potlatches to guests of the opposite moiety, displaying hereditary crests and dances. Shamans wore masks indicative of their spirit powers in curing. Warfare with enemy tribes was frequent, for revenge, booty, and slaves.
In the early 19th century the aboriginal Haida population was about 8,000 on the Queen Charlotte Islands and 1,800 in Alaska; in the 1890s they numbered fewer than 1,500 as the result of disease introduced through Western contact. During this appalling population decline, Queen Charlotte Islands survivors assembled in multiclan villages, of which two remain, Masset and Skidegate. In the mid-1980s the total Haida population was about 2,000.

download video

Language: Istro-Romanian

In Croatia, the Istro-Romanian language is spoken by about 300 people living in several villages of the Istrian Peninsula - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Croatia
No. of speakers in Croatia : 300

In Croatia, the Istro-Romanian language is spoken by about 300 people living in several villages in the northeast of the Istrian Peninsula.
The Istro-Romanian language contains many Italian and Slavic words due to the close contact to Italian and Slavic language speakers for centuries. The language is severely endangered. Due to its very small number of speakers, there is no public education or press in Istro-Romanian and in Croatia its speakers are not even recognised as a minority. All Croatian speakers of Istro-Romanian are bilingual in Istro-Romanian and Croatian.


Language: Karaim

For more than six hundred years, Karaim has been spoken as a community language in the territory of today’s Lithuania and Urkaine - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Lithuania
No. of speakers in Lithuania : less than 50

For more than six hundred years, Karaim has been spoken as a community language in the territory of today’s Lithuania and Ukraine. Due to the political measures taken by the post-war Soviet regime, the communities are now dispersed and their language has become endangered. The number of Karaims in Lithuania is about two hundred but only a fourth of them, mostly members of the eldest generation, still have a communicative competence in the language. Karaim speakers of Lithuania are multilingual, also having command of the regional or transregional dominant languages: Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. The functional domain of the Karaim language is restricted to everyday conversational situations in the family and with a few Karaim friends. Karaim also plays an important role in religious practice, since songs and prayers are both in Karaim and Hebrew.


Language: Saami

Saami is mother tongue of 10,000 people in Norway, 15,000-20,000 in Sweden, 7000 in Finland and 2000 in Russia - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Sweden
No. of speakers in Sweden : 15,000

The Saami are an indigenous people who have inhabited the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and much of the Kola Peninsula of Russia for thousands of years. The “Saami language” is a misleading term in that there is a number of distinct languages including Lule Saami, North Saami, Pite Saami, South Saami, and Ume Saaami in Sweden.
Traditional Saami culture is marked by hunting and fishing activities. Today, only a small proportion of the Saami people (perhaps 10 percent) are nomadic reindeer-herders, but this part of traditional Saami life remains very important to Saami cultural practice. Fjord fisheries are also central to most Saami people and to Saami culture.
The Saami have for more than a century resisted the attempts of non-Saami society to assimilate the Saami population. In 1903, a political newspaper, the Sagai Muittalaegje, provided a strong voice against these assimilation policies. Other political activities followed which helped the Saami maintain their distinct identity and way of life. In 1917, the first pan-Saami gathering was held. Shortly after World War II, the Saami Reindeer Herders’ Association was formed. In 1956 the Saami Nordic Council was established as a liaison body between Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish Saami. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Saami of the Kola Peninsula joined the Council and it was renamed the Saami Council in 1991. The establishment of a Saami Parliament (Sameting) in 1989 increased the linguistic, cultural and legal recognition of the Saami people.

Communiqué drafted by representatives of the indigenous peoples organisationsorganizations for release at the AMAP International Symposium on Environmental Contamination of the Arctic (Tromsø, June 1997);

Language: Scots Gaelic

Today the Scots Gaelic is spoken by 55,000 in Scotland, but also in Australia - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Scotland, UK
No. of speakers in the UK : 55,000

Introduced into Scotland about AD 500 (displacing an earlier Celtic language of the Brythonic group), it developed into a distinct dialect of Gaelic in the 13th century. A common Gaelic literary language was used in Ireland and Scotland until the 15th century, by which time Scottish had diverged to such a degree from Irish that mutual intelligibility was difficult, and Scots Gaelic could be considered a separate language from Irish.
Church Gaelic is based on the Perthshire dialect of 200 years ago, and is at a distance from spoken dialects. East Sutherlandshire dialect is so different from other spoken dialects as to be a barrier to communication. In some communities it is primarily used in the home, in church, and for social purposes. Books and journals are produced on various topics.
Today the Scots Gaelic is spoken in the north and central counties of Ross, and the Islands of Hebrides and Skye, but also in Australia, Canada and USA. Resurgence of interest in Scots Gaelic in the 1990s was given a boost by the establishment of Scotland’s own Parliament, for the first time in 300 years.
Src: Encyclopaedia Britannica;

LATIN AMERICA: Cucapa, Itza, Naso, Tobas

Language: Cucapa

Cucapa is an endangered language spoken by few hundred people in Mexico and in the USA - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Mexico
No. of Speakers in Mexico : 206

Cucapa is an endangered language spoken by about 500 people in Mexico and in the USA. The Indians of the Colorado river were first mentioned in 1540 by the Spanish explorer Fernando Atarcon. At least during four hundred years the Cucapa lived in family groups in the area of the Delta of Colorado and the Hardy river, and on the slopes of the Cucapa mountains. They were hunter-gatherers, fishermen and agriculturalists, cultivating maize. In 1605, there were about 22,000 indigenous people in the region of Colorado river; in 1827, one traveller mentioned that some 5,000 Indians lived around the Colorado river, and, in 1990, only about 1000 settlers lived in this region.
Today, the Cucapa population lives in Baja California, in El Mayor, in San Poza de Arvizú (to the south of Río San Luis Colorado) and in Arizona, USA.


Language: Itza

The highly endangered Mayan language Itzá is spoken by around 150 people living on the northern shore of Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Guatemala
No. of speakers in Guatemala : 1094

About 30 Mayan languages are still spoken by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Some are spoken by hundreds of thousands of people; some by fewer than 5,000. The highly endangered Mayan language Itzá is spoken fluently by around 150 people living in the village of San José, on the northern shore of Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala. There are a few hundred around 60 bilingual nonfluent speakers.
Because the government banned the speaking of Itzá in the 1930s, two generations of Itzá Maya have grown up learning only Spanish. The late 1980s saw a blossoming of interest among Maya people, including the Itzá, in preserving their cultural heritage. This revitalization movement has been encouraged by the Guatemalan government, which set up an academy to promote Mayan languages.


Language: Naso

The Naso language is spoken in the Kingdom of Naso, on the bank of the River Teribe, in the northwestern area of Panama - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Panama
No. of speakers in Panama : 2020

The Naso (Teribe) language is spoken in the northwestern area of Panama, on the bank of the River Teribe, in the Kingdom of Naso. Naso is the name preferred by the speakers for their language. The name Teribe was the one imposed by the invading Spanish. Tito Santana, the actual King of the Kingdom of Naso and its 2800 subjects, rules the only recognized kingdom on the American continent. He is responsible for protecting the interests of his people against the barrage of influences which often threaten the Nasos’ cultural survival and their language.
Src: ,

Language: Toba

Toba has 36,000 speakers in Argentina and it is also spoken in Bolivia and Paraguay - download video
© Discovery Comunication

Filmed in Argentina
No. of speakers in Argentina : 36,000

The Toba (Chaco Sur, Qom, Toba Qom) language is spoken in the Eastern Formosa Province and Chaco Province, and it is also spoken in Bolivia and Paraguay. There are two dialects: Southeast Toba and Nothern Toba and they are different from Toba of Paraguay (Toba-Maskoy) or Toba-Pilagá of Argentina.
The majority of speakers live in the mountains where they cultivate small parcels. In the last years, in the province of Chaco, the Tobas were granted definitive or provisory titles of property over their lands. Another group of Tobas live in suburban districts of Saenz Pena, Resistencia and Formosa. The Tobas constitute rural or urban communities with their traditional leaders or local commissions and communitarian associations, whose members are elected by the community.
The Tobas have lived in political and economic dependency of the dominant society. In spite of this, with time, they recovered the sense of being indigenous and the will to fight for their rights. They speak their language, produce traditional crafts, preserve their dances and songs and perform ancient healing rituals.