Language revitalization

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.[1] Those involved can include parties such as linguists, cultural or community groups, or governments.

Languages targeted for language revitalization include those whose use and prominence is severely limited, called endangered or weakening, or those that have only a few elderly speakers and seem to be dying, called moribund. Sometimes various tactics of language revitalization can even be used to try and 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.

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.[2]

Language revitalization is often deemed necessary because of the sheer amount of linguistic diversity being lost. In recent times alone, it is estimated that more than 2000 languages have already become extinct around the world. 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.[3]

Besides linguistic diversity, issues of culture and identity are prominent reasons why interested parties push for language revitalization. Many people hold the view that languages are unique "cultural treasures."[4] A community's language is a unique part of their culture, often connecting them with their ancestors or with the land, making up an essential part of their history and how they see themselves.[5]

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.[6]

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 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.[7]

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,[8][9] 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Where the state permits it, and where numbers warrant, encourage the use of the language in compulsory state education.
  6. Where the above stages have been achieved and consolidated, encourage the use of the language in the workplace (lower worksphere).
  7. Where the above stages have been achieved and consolidated encourage the use of the language in local government services and mass media.
  8. 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.[10]

Type of Method Degree of Endangerment
Healthy Weakening Moribund Extinct
Immersion ×
Neighborhood ×
Bilingual ×
Master-Apprentice × ×
Total Physical Response × ×
Telephone × ×
Radio × × ×
Multimedia × × ×
Two-way × × ×
Formulaic × × ××
Artificial Pidgin × × ××
Place Name × × ×
Reclamation × × ×
Adoption × × ×


Factors that help an endangered language progress

David Crystal, in his book Language Death, proposes 6 factors that can help a language progress.[12] He postulates that an endangered language progresses if its speakers:

  1. Increase the language's prestige within the dominant community
  2. Increase their wealth and income
  3. Increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community
  4. Have a strong presence in the education system
  5. Can write down the language
  6. Can use electronic technology

Revival linguistics

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.[13]

Zuckermann acknowledges the presence of "local peculiarities and idiosyncrasies"[14] but suggests that "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!"[14] 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). Structural compromise may, in fact, enhance the prospects of survival, as in the case of English in the post-Norman period.[15]

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."[14]

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."[14]

Specific examples

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.[16]

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. Success was enjoyed in similar circumstances by High German, standard Czech, Spanish and certain 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.[17] 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.[18]

In China, the Manchu language is one of the most endangered languages, with speakers only in three small areas of Manchuria remaining.[19] 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.[20]

Hebrew, once largely a liturgical language, was reestablished as a means of everyday communication by Jews returning 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.


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 analyse 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.[21]

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.[22] 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.[22]

Once European colonization began, many laws were enacted in order to promote the use of English over te reo Māori among indigenous people.[22] 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.[22] Also, Kohanga Reo, Māori language preschools, called language nests, were established.[23] 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.[22] 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,[22] 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,[24] but there it is in serious decline.[25] 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.[24] 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),[24] 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.[26] 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.[27] Irish language television has enjoyed particular success.[28] It has been argued that they tend to be better educated than monolingual English speakers and enjoy higher social status.[29] They represent the transition of Irish to a modern urban world, with an accompanying rise in prestige. Their existence therefore represents an example of successful (though limited) language revitalisation.

The Irish language's sister language in Scotland, Scottish Gaelic, is also currently being revitalised, having been suppressed since the formation of the United Kingdom, and was in further decline due to the Highland clearances. Currently, the Gaelic language is only spoken widely on the Western Isles and some areas of the Highland and Islands. With political independence high on the agenda, and a new found Scottish identity, the Gaelic language is regrowing, albeit at a slow pace. There is Gaelic-medium education, and the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 provides it equal respect to the English language.

Another Celtic language, the Manx language, was totally extinct in 1974, but some lovers are revitalizing it and now the language is taught in primary and secondary schools, used in some public events and spoken as a second language by hundreds of people.

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,[30] a guild of bards,[31] and the promotion of Cornish literature in modern Cornish, including novels and poetry.

North America

As of 2013, "a growing number" of Native American tribes are "trying to revitalize their languages."[32][33] 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;[34][35] also Chochenyo language, spoken in California, was totally extinct but is being revitalized.

South America

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.[36] 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.[36] 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.[37] Schooling in the Lagunas community, although having a conscious focus on teaching Kichwa, consists of mainly passive interaction, reading, and writing in Kichwa.[38] 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:

  1. Exposure to and acquisition of the language at a young age.
  2. Extreme immersion techniques.
  3. Multiple and diverse efforts to reach adults.
  4. Flexibility and coordination in planning and implementation
  5. Directly addressing different varieties of the language.
  6. Planners stressing that language revitalization is a long process
  7. Involving as many people as possible
  8. Parents using the language with their children
  9. Planners and advocates approaching the problem from all directions.

Specific suggestions include imparting an elevated perception of the language in schools, focusing on grassroots efforts both in school and the home, and maintaining national and regional attention.[37]


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”.[39]

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.[40][41] 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. Sometimes inaction is deliberate. This is often the case with governments, who deem that the cost of revitalization programs and creating linguistically diverse materials is too great to take on.[42]

See also




  1. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 169. Print.
  2. Laura Redish (2001), ‘Native Languages of the Americas: Endangered Language Revitalization and Revival’.
  3. "Endangered Languages". Retrieved 2014-04-20.
  4. Grenoble, Lenore A., and Lindsay J. Whaley. Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. p. 20. Print.
  5. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. Print.
  6. New Perspectives on Endangered Languages. Ed. José A.F. Farfán and Fernando F. Ramallo. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. pp. 1-7. Print.
  7. Tsunoda, Tasaku (2005). Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mounton de Gruyter. p. 170.
  8. Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language Shift: Theory and Practice of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
  9. Fishman, J. A. (ed.) (2001). Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
  10. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 201. Print
  11. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 201. Print.
  12. Crystal, D. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 130-141. ISBN 0-521-65321-5
  13. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad and Walsh, Michael 2011. 'Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures', Australian Journal of Linguistics Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 111-127.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "Stop, revive and survive", The Australian, Higher Education, June 6, 2012.
  15. Nancy C. Dorian, ‘Purism v. compromise in language revitalisation and language revival’ in Language in Society 23, pp. 479-494.
  16. Kaye, Alan S. "Arabic." Morphologies of Asia and Africa. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007. 560-77. Print.
  17. Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Human Rights: Intersections in Theory and ... - William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith - Google Books
  18. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?: Reversing Language Shift, Revisited : A ... - Joshua A. Fishman - Google Books
  19. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 28. Print.
  20. Ian Johnson (2009-10-05), "In China, the Forgotten Manchu Seek to Rekindle Their Glory", The Wall Street Journal, retrieved 2009-10-05
  21. Dr Christina Eira, community linguist with the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), ‘Aboriginal Revival Languages,’ Lingua Franca, 27 June 2009, Radio National: Retrieved 21 June 2014.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Senft, Gunter (2010). Endangered Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal Languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 185–192. ISBN 9780858836235.
  23. Hinton & Hale (2001). The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. San Diego: Academic Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-12-349353-6.
  24. 1 2 3 Carnie, Andrew. "Modern Irish: Modern Irish: A Case Study in Language Revival Failure." (1995).
  25. This decline was noted in 2002. "Report of the Gaeltacht Commission" (PDF). 2002. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  26. Gaelscoileanna Teo – Statistics:
  27. ‘Schism fears for Gaeilgeoirí,’ Brian Ó Broin, 16 January 2010, The Irish Times.
  28. See the website of TG4:
  29. ‘Language and Occupational Status: Linguistic Elitism in the Irish Labour Market,’ The Economic and Social Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 2009, pp. 435–460:
  30. Cornish New Testament
  31. guild of bards
  32. "American Indian tribes turn to technology in race to save endangered languages". Washington Post. 2013-04-17. Retrieved 2013-04-19.
  33. Cohen, Patricia (6 April 2010). "Indian Tribes Go in Search Of Their Lost Languages". The New York Times. p. 1.
  36. 1 2 King, Kendall (2001). Language Revitalization Processes and Prospects: Quichua in the Ecuadorian Andes. New York: Multilingual Matters LTD. pp. 71–83. ISBN 1-85359-494-6.
  37. 1 2 King, Kendall (2001). Language Revitalization Processes and Prospects: Quichua in the Ecuadorian Andes. New York: Multilingual Matters LTD. pp. 187–218. ISBN 1-85359-494-6.
  38. King, Kendall (2001). Language Revitalization Processes and Prospects: Quichua in the Ecuadorian Andes. New York: Multilingual Matters LTD. p. 140. ISBN 1-85359-494-6.
  39. <John McWhorter, ‘The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English’ in World Affairs Journal, Fall 2009:
  40. "Are dying languages worth saving?". BBC News. 15 September 2010.
  41. Malik, Kenan (November 20, 2000). "Let Them Die". Prospect.
  42. Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 158-159. Print.

Further reading

External links


United States


Technologies for language revitalization

Language revitalization techniques

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