Language revitalization, also referred to as language revival or reversing language shift, is an attempt to halt or reverse the decline of a language or to revive an extinct one. Those involved can include parties such as linguists, cultural or community groups, or governments. Some argue for a distinction between language revival (the resurrection of a dead language with no existing native speakers) and language revitalization (the rescue of a "dying" language). It has been pointed out that there has only been one successful instance of a complete language revival, that of the Hebrew language, creating a new generation of native speakers without any pre-existing native speakers as a model.
Languages targeted for language revitalization include those whose use and prominence is severely limited. Sometimes various tactics of language revitalization can even be used to try to revive extinct languages. Though the goals of language revitalization vary greatly from case to case, they typically involve attempting to expand the number of speakers and use of a language, or trying to maintain the current level of use to protect the language from extinction or language death.
Reasons for revitalization vary. In recent times alone, it is estimated that more than 2000 languages have already become extinct. The UN estimates that more than half of the languages spoken today have fewer than 10,000 speakers and that a quarter have fewer than 1,000 speakers and that, unless there are some efforts to maintain them, over the next hundred years most of these will become extinct. These figures are often cited as reasons why language revitalization is necessary to preserve linguistic diversity. Culture and identity are also frequently cited reasons for language revitalization, when a language is perceived as a unique "cultural treasure." A community often sees language as a unique part of their culture, connecting them with their ancestors or with the land, making up an essential part of their history and self-image.
Language revitalization is also closely tied to the linguistic field of language documentation. In this field, linguists attempt to create full records of a language's grammar, vocabulary, and linguistic features. This practice can often lead to more concern for the revitalization of a specific language on study. Furthermore, the task of documentation is often taken on with the goal of revitalization in mind.
The four degrees of language endangerment
- all generations use language in variety of settings
- spoken by older people; not fully used in younger generations
- only a few speakers (non-children) remain; no longer used as native language by children
- no longer spoken as a native language
- no longer spoken or potentially spoken
One of the most important preliminary steps in language revitalization/recovering involves establishing the degree to which a particular language has been “dislocated”. This helps involved parties find the best way to assist or revive the language.
Steps in reversing language shift
There are many different theories or models that attempt to lay out a plan for language revitalization. One of these is provided by celebrated linguist Joshua Fishman. Fishman's model for reviving threatened (or sleeping) languages, or for making them sustainable, consists of an eight-stage process. Efforts should be concentrated on the earlier stages of restoration until they have been consolidated before proceeding to the later stages. The eight stages are:
- Acquisition of the language by adults, who in effect act as language apprentices (recommended where most of the remaining speakers of the language are elderly and socially isolated from other speakers of the language).
- Create a socially integrated population of active speakers (or users) of the language (at this stage it is usually best to concentrate mainly on the spoken language rather than the written language).
- In localities where there are a reasonable number of people habitually using the language, encourage the informal use of the language among people of all age groups and within families and bolster its daily use through the establishment of local neighbourhood institutions in which the language is encouraged, protected and (in certain contexts at least) used exclusively.
- In areas where oral competence in the language has been achieved in all age groups, encourage literacy in the language, but in a way that does not depend upon assistance from (or goodwill of) the state education system.
- Where the state permits it, and where numbers warrant, encourage the use of the language in compulsory state education.
- Where the above stages have been achieved and consolidated, encourage the use of the language in the workplace (lower worksphere).
- Where the above stages have been achieved and consolidated, encourage the use of the language in local government services and mass media.
- Where the above stages have been achieved and consolidated, encourage use of the language in higher education, government, etc.
This model of language revival is intended to direct efforts to where they are most effective and to avoid wasting energy trying to achieve the later stages of recovery when the earlier stages have not been achieved. For instance, it is probably wasteful to campaign for the use of a language on television or in government services if hardly any families are in the habit of using the language.
Additionally, Tasaku Tsunoda describes a range of different techniques or methods that speakers can use to try to revitalize a language, including techniques to revive extinct languages and maintain weak ones. The techniques he lists are often limited to the current vitality of the language.
He claims that the immersion method cannot be used to revitalize an extinct or moribund language. In contrast, the master-apprentice method of one-on-one transmission on language proficiency can be used with moribund languages. Several other methods of revitalization, including those that rely on technology such as recordings or media, can be used for languages in any state of viability.
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Factors in successful language revitalization
David Crystal, in his book Language Death, proposes that language revitalization is more likely to be successful if its speakers
Ghil'ad Zuckermann proposes "Revival Linguistics" as a new linguistic discipline and paradigm.
Zuckermann's term 'Revival Linguistics' is modelled upon 'Contact Linguistics'. Revival linguistics inter alia explores the universal constraints and mechanisms involved in language reclamation, renewal and revitalization. It draws perspicacious comparative insights from one revival attempt to another, thus acting as an epistemological bridge between parallel discourses in various local attempts to revive sleeping tongues all over the globe.
According to Zuckermann, "revival linguistics combines scientific studies of native language acquisition and foreign language learning. After all, language reclamation is the most extreme case of second-language learning. Revival linguistics complements the established area of documentary linguistics, which records endangered languages before they fall asleep."
Zuckermann proposes that "revival linguistics changes the field of historical linguistics by, for instance, weakening the family tree model, which implies that a language has only one parent."
There are disagreements in the field of language revitalization as to the degree that revival should concentrate on maintaining the traditional language, versus allowing simplification or widespread borrowing from the majority language.
"there are linguistic constraints applicable to all revival attempts. Mastering them would help revivalists and first nations' leaders to work more efficiently. For example, it is easier to resurrect basic vocabulary and verbal conjugations than sounds and word order. Revivalists should be realistic and abandon discouraging, counter-productive slogans such as "Give us authenticity or give us death!"
Nancy Dorian has pointed out that conservative attitudes toward loanwords and grammatical changes often hamper efforts to revitalize endangered languages (as with Tiwi in Australia), and that a division can exist between educated revitalizers, interested in historicity, and remaining speakers interested in locally authentic idiom (as has sometimes occurred with Irish). Some have argued that structural compromise may, in fact, enhance the prospects of survival, as may have been the case with English in the post-Norman period.
Other linguists have argued that when language revitalization borrows heavily from the majority language, the result is a new language, perhaps a creole or pidgin. For example, the existence of "Neo-Hawaiian" as a separate language from "Traditional Hawaiian" has been proposed, due to the heavy influence of English on every aspect of the revived Hawaiian language. This has also been proposed for Irish, with a sharp division between "Urban Irish" spoken by second-language speakers and traditional Irish as spoken as a first language in Gaeltacht areas. Ó Béarra stated: "...[to] follow the syntax and idiomatic conventions of English, [would be] producing what amounts to little more than English in Irish drag." With regard to the then-moribund Manx language, the scholar T. F. O'Rahilly stated, "When a language surrenders itself to foreign idiom, and when all its speakers become bilingual, the penalty is death." Neil McRae has stated that the uses of Scottish Gaelic are becoming increasingly tokenistic, and native Gaelic idiom is being lost in favor of artificial terms created by second-language speakers.
Total revival of a dead language (in the sense of having no native speakers) into a self-sustaining community of several million first language speakers has happened only once, in the case of the Hebrew language, now the national language of Israel. In this case, there was a unique set of historical and cultural characteristics that facilitated the revival (see Revival of the Hebrew language).
In a related development, literary languages without native speakers enjoyed great prestige and practical utility as lingua francas, often counting millions of fluent speakers at a time. In many such cases, a decline in the use of the literary language, sometimes precipitous, was later accompanied by a strong renewal. This happened, for example, in the revival of Classical Latin in the Renaissance, and the revival of Sanskrit in the early centuries A.D. An analogous phenomenon in contemporary Arabic-speaking areas is the expanded use of the literary language (Modern Standard Arabic, a form of the Classical Arabic of the 6th century A.D.). This is taught to all educated speakers and is used in radio broadcasts, formal discussions, etc.
In addition, literary languages have sometimes risen to the level of becoming first languages of very large language communities. An example is standard Italian, which originated as a literary language derived from the language of 13th-century Florence, especially as used by such important Florentine writers as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. This language existed for several centuries primarily as a literary vehicle, with few native speakers; even as late as 1861, on the eve of Italian unification, the language only counted about 500,000 speakers, many non-native, out of a total population of c. 22,000,000. The subsequent success of the language has been through conscious development, where speakers of any of the numerous Italian languages were taught standard Italian as a second language and subsequently imparted it to their children, who learned it as a first language. Of course this came at the expense of local Italian languages, most of which are now endangered. Success was enjoyed in similar circumstances by High German, standard Czech, Castilian Spanish and other languages.
The Ainu language of the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan is currently moribund, but efforts are underway to revive it. A 2006 survey of the Hokkaido Ainu indicated that only 4.6% of Ainu surveyed were able to converse in or "speak a little" Ainu. As of 2001, Ainu was not taught in any elementary or secondary schools in Japan, but was offered at numerous language centres and universities in Hokkaido, as well as at Tokyo's Chiba University.
In China, the Manchu language is one of the most endangered languages, with speakers only in three small areas of Manchuria remaining. Some enthusiasts are trying to revive the language of their ancestors using available dictionaries and textbooks, and even occasional visits to Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County in Xinjiang, where the related Xibe language is still spoken natively.
In the Philippines, a variation of Spanish that was primarily based on Mexican Spanish was the lingua franca of the country since Spanish colonization in 1565 and was an official language alongside Filipino (a standardized form of the Tagalog language) and English until 1987 following a ratification of a new Constitution where it was re-designated as a voluntary language. As a result of its loss as an official language and years of marginalization at the official level during and after American colonization, the use of the Spanish language amongst the overall populace decreased dramatically and became moribund with the remaining native speakers left being mostly elderly people. However, it is currently seeing a slow revival due to past government promotion under the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Most notably, Resolution No. 2006-028 reinstated Spanish as a mandatory subject in secondary schools and universities. Results were immediate as the job demand for Spanish speakers had increased since 2008. As of 2010, the Instituto Cervantes de Manila reported the number of Filipino Hispanophones with native or non-native knowledge at approximately 3 million (including those who speak the native Spanish-based Creole Chavacano). In addition to government efforts, Spanish has also seen a small revival of interest in media thanks to the importing of telenovelas and music from Latin America.
Hebrew, once largely a liturgical language, was reestablished as a means of everyday communication by Jews migrating to what is now the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories, starting in the nineteenth century: it is the world's most famous and successful example of language revitalization.
In Thailand, there exists a Chong language revitalization project which is headed by Suwilai Premsrirat.
Australia and New Zealand
The European colonization of Australia, and the consequent damage sustained by Aboriginal communities, had a catastrophic effect on indigenous languages in the southeast and south of the country, leaving them with no living traditional native speakers. A number of Aboriginal communities in Victoria and elsewhere are now trying to revive these languages. The work is typically directed by a group of elders and other knowledgeable people, with community language workers doing most of the research and teaching. They analyze the data, develop spelling systems and vocabulary and prepare resources. Decisions are made in collaboration. Some communities employ linguists, and there are also linguists who work independently.
One of the best cases of relative success in language revitalization is the case of Māori also known as te reo Māori. It is the ancestral tongue of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and a vehicle for prose narrative, sung poetry, and genealogical recital. The history of the Māori people is taught in te reo Māori in sacred learning houses through oral transmission. Even after te reo Māori became a written language, the oral tradition was preserved.
Once European colonization began, many laws were enacted in order to promote the use of English over te reo Māori among indigenous people. The Education Ordinance Act of 1847 mandated school instruction in English and established boarding schools to speed up assimilation of Māori youths into European culture. The Native School Act of 1858 forbade te reo Māori from being spoken in schools. The colonial masters also promoted the use of English in Māori homes, convincing many parents that their children would not get jobs unless they spoke English.
During the 1970s, a group of young Māori people, called the Nga Tamatoa, successfully campaigned for Māori to be taught in schools. Also, Kohanga Reo, Māori language preschools, called language nests, were established. The emphasis was on teaching children the language at a young age, a very effective strategy for language learning. The Māori Language Commission was formed in 1987, leading to a number of national reforms aimed at revitalizing te reo Māori. They include media programs broadcast in te reo Māori, undergraduate college programs taught in te reo Māori, and an annual Māori language week. Each iwi, or tribe, created a language planning program catering to its specific circumstances. These efforts have resulted in a steady increase in children being taught in te reo Māori in schools since 1996, creating a significant number of fluent speakers and making Māori prominent and useful in the people's daily lives. The program has been so successful that similar programs have been based on it. See Māori language revival.
In Europe, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the use of both local and learned languages declined as the central governments of the different states imposed their vernacular language as the standard throughout education and official use (this was the case in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Greece, and to some extent, in Germany and Austria-Hungary).
In the last few decades, local nationalism and human rights movements have made a more multicultural policy standard in European states; sharp condemnation of the earlier practices of suppressing regional languages was expressed in the use of such terms as "linguicide". Campaigns have raised the profiles of local languages to such an extent that in some European regions, the local languages have acquired the status of official languages, along with the national language. The Council of Europe's action in this area (see European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages) is in contrast to the European Union's granting of official status to a restricted number of official languages (see Languages of the European Union). Presently, official attempts to revitalise languages under threat, such as the promotion of Welsh, Galician, Basque and Catalan in their respective native regions, have seen varying degrees of success.
One of the best known European attempts at language revitalization concerns the Irish language. While English is dominant through most of Ireland, Irish, a Celtic language, is still spoken in certain areas called Gaeltachtaí, but there it is in serious decline. The challenges faced by the language over the last few centuries have included exclusion from important domains, social denigration, the death or emigration of many Irish speakers during the Irish famine of the 1840s, and continued emigration since. Efforts to revitalise Irish were being made, however, from the mid-1800s, and were associated with a desire for Irish political independence. Contemporary Irish language revitalization has chiefly involved teaching Irish as a compulsory language in mainstream English-speaking schools. But the failure to teach it in an effective and engaging way means (as linguist Andrew Carnie notes) that students do not acquire the fluency needed for the lasting viability of the language, and this leads to boredom and resentment. Carnie also noted a lack of media in Irish (2006), though this is no longer the case.
The decline of the Gaeltachtaí and the failure of state-directed revitalisation have been countered by an urban revival movement. This is largely based on an independent community-based school system, known generally as Gaelscoileanna. These schools teach entirely through Irish and their number is growing, with over thirty such schools in Dublin alone. They are an important element in the creation of a network of urban Irish speakers (known as Gaeilgeoirí), who tend to be young, well-educated and middle-class. It is now likely that this group has acquired critical mass, a fact reflected in the expansion of Irish-language media. Irish language television has enjoyed particular success. It has been argued that they tend to be better educated than monolingual English speakers and enjoy higher social status. They represent the transition of Irish to a modern urban world, with an accompanying rise in prestige.
There are also current attempts to revive the related language of Scottish Gaelic, which was suppressed following the formation of the United Kingdom, and entered further decline due to the Highland clearances. Currently, Gaelic is only spoken widely on the Western Isles and some areas of the Highland and Islands. The decline in fluent Gaelic speakers has slowed, however the population center has shifted to L2 speakers in urban areas, especially Glasgow.
Another Celtic language, Manx, lost its last native speaker in 1974 and was declared extinct by UNESCO in 2009, but never completely fell from use. The language is now taught in primary and secondary schools including the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, used in some public events and spoken as a second language by approximately 1800 people. Revitalization efforts include radio shows in Manx Gaelic and social media and online resources. The Manx government has also been involved in the effort by creating organizations such as the Manx Heritage Foundation (also known as Culture Vannin) and the position of Manx Language Officer. The government has released an official Manx Language Strategy for 2017-2021.
There have been a number of attempts to revive the Cornish language, both privately and some under the Cornish Language Partnership. Some of the activities have included translation of the Christian scriptures, a guild of bards, and the promotion of Cornish literature in modern Cornish, including novels and poetry.
In recent years, a growing number of Native American tribes have been trying to revitalize their languages. For example, there is an Apple iPhone/iPod app for the Halq'emeylem language of the Greater Vancouver region of Canada. In addition, there are apps (including phrases, word lists and dictionaries) in many Native languages ranging from Cree, Cherokee and Chickasaw, to Lakota, Ojibway and Oneida, Massachusett, Navajo and Gwych'in.
Wampanoag, a language spoken by the people of the same name in Massachusetts, underwent a revitalization project led by Jessie Little Doe Baird. The project has seen children speaking the language fluently for the first time in over 100 years. In addition, there are currently attempts at revitalizing the Chochenyo language of California, which had become extinct.
Kichwa is the variety of the Quechua language spoken in Ecuador and is one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in South America. Despite this fact, Kichwa is a threatened language, mainly because of the expansion of Spanish in South America. One community of original Kichwa speakers, Lagunas, was one of the first indigenous communities to switch to the Spanish language. According to King, this was because of the increase of trade and business with the large Spanish-speaking town nearby. The Lagunas people assert that it was not for cultural assimilation purposes, as they value their cultural identity highly. However, once this contact was made, language for the Lagunas people shifted through generations, to Kichwa and Spanish bilingualism and now is essentially Spanish monolingualism. The feelings of the Lagunas people present a dichotomy with language use, as most of the Lagunas members speak Spanish exclusively and only know a few words in Kichwa.
The prospects for Kichwa language revitalization are not promising, as parents depend on schooling for this purpose, which is not nearly as effective as continual language exposure in the home. Schooling in the Lagunas community, although having a conscious focus on teaching Kichwa, consists of mainly passive interaction, reading, and writing in Kichwa. In addition to grassroots efforts, national language revitalization organizations, like CONAIE, focus attention on non-Spanish speaking indigenous children, who represent a large minority in the country. Another national initiative, Bilingual Intercultural Education Project (PEBI), was ineffective in language revitalization because instruction was given in Kichwa and Spanish was taught as a second language to children who were almost exclusively Spanish monolinguals. Although some techniques seem ineffective, Kendall A. King provides several suggestions:
- Exposure to and acquisition of the language at a young age.
- Extreme immersion techniques.
- Multiple and diverse efforts to reach adults.
- Flexibility and coordination in planning and implementation
- Directly addressing different varieties of the language.
- Planners stressing that language revitalization is a long process
- Involving as many people as possible
- Parents using the language with their children
- Planners and advocates approaching the problem from all directions.
John McWhorter has argued that programs to revive indigenous languages will almost never be very effective because of the practical difficulties involved. He also argues that the death of a language does not necessarily mean the death of a culture. Indigenous expression is still possible even when the original language has disappeared, as with Native American groups and as evidenced by the vitality of black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English. He argues that language death is, ironically, a sign of hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space: “To maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation”.
Kenan Malik has also argued that it is "irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages, as language death is natural and in many cases inevitable, even with intervention. He proposes that language death improves communication by ensuring more people speak the same language. This may benefit the economy and reduce conflict. Others have pointed out that similarities in language and culture have not prevented brutal civil wars.
The protection of minority languages from extinction is often not a concern for speakers of the dominant language. Often times, there is prejudice and deliberate persecution of minority languages, in order to appropriate the cultural and economic capital of minority groups. At other times governments deem that the cost of revitalization programs and creating linguistically diverse materials is too great to take on.
- Category:Language activists
- Endangered languages
- Language documentation
- Language nest
- Language planning
- Language policy
- Linguistic purism
- Minority language
- Regional language
- Rosetta Project
- Sacred language
- Second-language acquisition
- Treasure language
- Languages in censuses
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- Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity
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- Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival
- Indigenous Language Institute
- Live Your Language Alliance (LYLA) "It is the desire of the Live Your Language Alliance to hear and speak the traditional languages of the Tolowa, Karuk, Yurok, Hupa, Tsnungwe, Wiyot, Mattole, and Wailaki."
- Marisa Agha (2012-03-18). "Language preservation helps American Indian students stick with college" (PDF). The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 2012-08-08.
- Recording your elder/Native speaker, practical vocal recording tips for non-professionals
- Learning indigenous languages on Nintendo
- Texting endangered languages
- First Nations endangered languages chat applications
- DOBES Documentation of Endangered Languages
- Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center training
- Pointers on How to Learn Your Language (scroll to link on page)
- Do-it-yourself grammar and reading in your language, Breath of Life 2010 presentations
- Language Hunters
- Where Are Your Keys
- Lost Words - The Documentary, covers Dr. Stephen Greymorning's Accelerated Second Language Learning