Language revitalization

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Language revitalization, also referred to as language revival or reversing language shift, is the attempt by interested parties 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.

Often, multiple parties work together on the same project. Languages targeted for language revitalization include those in which the 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.

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.

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."[2] 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.[3]

Language revitalization is also closely tied to the linguistic field of language documentation. In this field, linguists attempt to create full records of a languages 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.[4]


One of the most important preliminary steps in language revitalization 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[edit]

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,[5][6] 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.

For example, 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.[7] Electronic courses exist for hundreds of languages, and online recordings for thousands.[8]

Factors that help an endangered language progress[edit]

David Crystal, in his book Language Death, proposes six factors that can help a language progress.[9] He postulates that an endangered language progresses if its speakers:

  1. Increase the language's prestige within the dominant community
  2. Increase their wealth
  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[edit]

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."[10]

Zuckermann acknowledges the presence of "local peculiarities and idiosyncrasies"[11] 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!"[11]

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."[11]

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."[11]

Specific examples[edit]

One of the best cases of relative success in language revitalization is the case of Maori. This language, indigenous to New Zealand, is part of the Eastern Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family.[12] The main method for revival in this case is immersion. Schools all across New Zealand were set up in which Maori is the only language of communication. These schools included “languages nests” for preschoolers as well as schools and camps for children and adults.[13] This has proved very successful, leading to significant numbers of fluent speakers and making Maori prominent and useful in their daily lives. In fact, the program has been so successful that similar programs have emerged based on it. Notably, these include immersion schools for the Hawaiian language in Hawaii.[13] See Maori language revival.

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).

However, during several periods in the past, literary languages without native speakers nonetheless enjoyed great prestige and practical use 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. Many of these literary languages, although having few or no native speakers, were far from "dead", and were quite often used even in extemporaneous speech. This type of situation exists to this day in Arabic-speaking areas, where the literary language (Modern Standard Arabic, a form of the Classical Arabic of the 6th century A.D.) is taught to all educated speakers and is used in radio broadcasts, formal discussions, etc.[14]

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 most important Florentine writers such 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.[citation needed]

Note that in the case of Italian, and similar situations such as the eventual dominance of modern German, Czech Spanish and other languages that originated as largely or purely literary languages, is that even though these literary languages by themselves had at one point few or no native speakers, they were dialects of existing spoken languages that already had large communities of native speakers — hence the language cannot reasonably be said to have been "dead". One exception is standard Finnish, which was born in the 15th century and was further developed during the 19th century as a compromising standard between eastern and western varieties of the language. Furthermore, many of the speakers who eventually adopted the languages were already speakers of closely related languages (e.g. other Romance languages or Germanic languages). The uniqueness of the revitalization of Hebrew is that before its revival, there were no native speakers of any variety of Hebrew, and the early community that led to its revitalization was composed largely of speakers of the relatively unrelated Yiddish language (which was written in Hebrew script and contained a variety of ancient Hebrew loanwords but is generally considered a variety of Middle High German).[citation needed]


One of the most well-known and extensive efforts of language revitalization in Europe is that of the Irish language. While English is the majority language throughout most of Ireland, Irish, a Celtic language, is still spoken in certain western areas of Ireland called Gaeltachtaí.[15] The language has faced many challenges over the past centuries, from multiple bannings to cultural stigmatism to the Irish potato famine and resultant emigration. But desires to maintain and revitalize Irish have been around since the mid-1800s, intertwining with the desires for Irish political independence and home rule.[15] The efforts at language revitalization since then, particularly in the last several decades, have been sustained and widespread. It is noteworthy that the government of Ireland has given this issue huge support over the years. The methods of those involved with the project have generally focused on teaching Irish in school. This program has been, in general, a failure. Linguist Andrew Carnie notes that one main problem with using the schooling method is that these learners are not acquiring the language, which is necessary for its lasting viability. Additionally, many people resent being forced to learn it in schools and thus have an unfavorable view of the language. The Irish revival movement has also made attempts using the tactic of immersion, creating Irish summer immersion schools in some of the gaeltachtaí.[15] This has also not gone very well, in part because it means that the people in the programs are more likely to use English when they are outside of the school, though still inside the gaeltacht area. It also means that more non-Irish speakers are weakening the area. Another important issue discussed by Carnie is the serious insufficiency of media in Irish, which would be helpful in making Irish appealing and useful for people.[15]

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,[16] a guild of bards,[17] and the promotion of Cornish literature in modern Cornish, including novels and poetry.

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).[citation needed]

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).[citation needed] Presently, official attempts to revitalise languages under threat from extinction, such as the promotion of Welsh, Galician, Basque and Catalan in their respective native regions, have seen varying degrees of success.

On the other end of the spectrum, Latin, the learned language of education and academic communication in Europe for many centuries—providing a cultural link to the continent across all its universities until the aforementioned period—has also been the object of a language revival movement, and is precariously growing in number of speakers (cf. Living Latin). Since, however, Latin is language now native to no people, this movement has received little support from governments, national or supranational.[citation needed]


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.[18] 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.[19]

In China, the Manchu language is one of the most endangered languages, with speakers only in three small areas of Manchuria remaining.[20] 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.[21]

North America[edit]

As of 2013, "a growing number" of Native American tribes are "trying to revitalize their languages."[22][23] 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 Ojibway and Oneida, Massachusett, Navajo and Gwych'in.


The concept of protecting languages from extinction is not a concern for some. In most cases, the general public does not know about most of the languages facing extinction and thus no attention is paid. Other times, inaction is more deliberate. This is often the case with governments; often they deem that the cost of revitalization programs and creating linguistically diverse materials is too great to take on. Even many linguists seem unconcerned with revitalization.[24]

Writer Kenan Malik argues 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. It is also argued that language death improves communication by ensuring more people speak the same language, this may benefit the economy and reduce conflict.[25][26]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 169. Print.
  2. ^ Grenoble, Lenore A., and Lindsay J. Whaley. Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. p. 20. Print.
  3. ^ Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. Print.
  4. ^ New Perspectives on Endangered Languages. Ed. José A.F. Farfán and Fernando F. Ramallo. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. pp. 1-7. Print.
  5. ^ Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language Shift: Theory and Practice of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
  6. ^ Fishman, J. A. (ed.) (2001). Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
  7. ^ Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 201. Print
  8. ^ "Find better language courses: Impartial reviews of 70 self-study programs". Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  9. ^ Crystal, D. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 130-141. ISBN 0-521-65321-5
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b c d Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "Stop, revive and survive", The Australian, Higher Education, June 6, 2012.
  12. ^ "Maori." Ethnologue. 17th edition, 2013.
  13. ^ a b Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 202-3. Print.
  14. ^ Kaye, Alan S. "Arabic." Morphologies of Asia and Africa. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007. 560-77. Print.
  15. ^ a b c d Carnie, Andrew. "Modern Irish: Modern Irish: A Case Study in Language Revival Failure." (1995).
  16. ^ Cornish New Testament
  17. ^ guild of bards
  18. ^ Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Human Rights: Intersections in Theory and ... - William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith - Google Books
  19. ^ Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?: Reversing Language Shift, Revisited : A ... - Joshua A. Fishman - Google Books
  20. ^ Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 28. Print.
  21. ^ Ian Johnson (2009-10-05), "In China, the Forgotten Manchu Seek to Rekindle Their Glory", The Wall Street Journal, retrieved 2009-10-05 
  22. ^ "American Indian tribes turn to technology in race to save endangered languages". Washington Post. 2013-04-17. Retrieved 2013-04-19. 
  23. ^ Cohen, Patricia (6 April 2010). "Indian Tribes Go in Search Of Their Lost Languages". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  24. ^ Tsunoda, Tasaku. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2005. 158-159. Print.
  25. ^ "Are dying languages worth saving?". BBC News. 15 September 2010. 
  26. ^ Malik, Kenan (November 20, 2000). "Let Them Die". Prospect. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Grenoble, L. A. and Whaley, L. J. (1998). Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response. Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-59712-9)
  • Nettle, D. and Romaine, S. (2000). Vanishing Voices. Oxford University Press. (ISBN 0-19-515246-8)
  • Reyhner, J. (ed.) (1999). Revitalizing indigenous languages. Flagstaff, AZ : Northern Arizona University, Center for Excellence in Education. (ISBN 0-9670554-0-7)

External links[edit]


United States[edit]


Technologies for language revitalization[edit]

Language revitalization techniques[edit]