Saving Languages

An Introduction to Language Revitalization

HOEL


Over the past fifty years and with increasing frequency, innovative programs have appeared around the world with the aim of revitalizing languages that are at risk of disappearing due to declining numbers of native speakers. The nature of these initiatives varies as greatly as the languages that are their targets. In some instances, they are nearly national in scope, such as the efforts to preserve Irish, yet in other instances they involve small communities or even a handful of motivated individuals. Many of these programs are connected to claims of territorial sovereignty, though cultural sovereignty or a desire to maintain a unique ethnic identity is just as often the explicit goal. […]

The sheer number of threatened languages cannot alone explain the ever-expanding number of language revitalization initiatives. To this we must add a second major socio-historical shift, the general trend towards recognizing the rights of minorities, both as individuals and as groups, within modern nation-states. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been a collapse of hegemonic patterns in many portions of the world that had actively, and explicitly, worked to suppress cultural difference, and as a consequence in many places ethnic groups and minorities have increased flexibility in pursuing their own political agendas (Kymlicka 1995). In a very real sense minority communities have been emboldened to pursue territorial, political, and cultural rights. […]

Since language is a visible and powerful indicator of group identity, it has accurately been recognized as an important way to maintain links with one’s cultural past and to protect one’s cultural uniqueness in the present.

Lenore A. Grenoble & Lindsay J. Whaley

« Au cours des cinquante dernières années et de plus en plus fréquemment, des programmes novateurs ont été publiés dans le monde entier dans le but de revitaliser des langues qui sont menacées de disparaître du fait du nombre déclinant de locuteurs natifs. La nature de ces initiatives varie aussi grandement que les langues qui sont leurs cibles. Dans certains cas, elles sont presque d’envergure nationale, comme les efforts pour préserver l’irlandais, mais dans d’autres cas elles impliquent de petites communautés ou même une poignée d’individus motivés. Nombre de ces programmes sont liés à des revendications de souveraineté territoriale, bien que la souveraineté culturelle ou le désir de maintenir une identité ethnique unique soit tout aussi souvent le but explicite. […]

Le nombre même de langues menacées ne peut seul expliquer le nombre toujours croissant d’initiatives de revitalisation linguistique. A cela nous devons ajouter un second changement socio-historique majeur, la tendance générale vers la reconnaissance des droits des minorités, aussi bien en tant qu’individus qu’en tant que groupes, au sein des États-nations modernes. Particulièrement depuis la fin de la Guerre Froide, il y a eu un effondrement des modèles hégémoniques dans de nombreuses parties du monde qui avaient activement et explicitement travaillé à supprimer la différence culturelle, et en conséquence, dans de nombreux endroits des groupes ethniques et des minorités ont davantage de souplesse dans la poursuite de leurs propres agendas politiques (Kymlicka 1995). Dans un sens très réel des communautés minoritaires ont été enhardies à poursuivre des droits territoriaux, politiques et culturels. […]

La langue étant un indicateur visible et puissant de l’identité d’un groupe, elle a été précisément reconnue comme un moyen important de maintenir les liens avec son passé culturel et de protéger son originalité culturelle dans le présent. »

Jeunes filles Maori
CULTURAL RIGHTS

“Les droits culturels, cadre propice à la diversité culturelle”

“Les droits culturels sont partie intégrante des droits de l’homme, qui sont universels, indissociables et interdépendants. L’épanouissement d’une diversité créatrice exige la pleine réalisation des droits culturels, tels qu’ils sont définis à l’article 27 de la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme et aux articles 13 et 15 du Pacte international relatif aux droits économiques, sociaux et culturels. Toute personne doit ainsi pouvoir s’exprimer, créer et diffuser ses oeuvres dans la langue de son choix et en particulier dans sa langue maternelle ; toute personne a le droit à une éducation et une formation de qualité qui respectent pleinement son identité culturelle ; toute personne doit pouvoir participer à la vie culturelle de son choix et exercer ses propres pratiques culturelles, dans les limites qu’impose le respect des droits de l’homme et des libertés fondamentales.”

“Cultural rights as an enabling environment for cultural diversity”

“Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent. The flourishing of creative diversity requires the full implementation of cultural rights as defined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Articles 13 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All persons have therefore the right to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons are entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity; and all persons have the right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and conduct their own cultural practices, subject to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity – Article 5

This book is designed for readers of various backgrounds who are interested in the fate of small language communities around the globe: linguists, anthropologists, and academics in other disciplines; language activists, missionaries, humanitarian workers, policy makers, and educators; journalists and researchers; students; and visionaries who believe that it is possible to hear their language spoken for many centuries to come in the face of many who claim otherwise. With this diversity of readers in mind, our goal was to write a book that would serve as a general reference guide to language revitalization, providing the necessary background, highlighting the central issues, indicating common obstacles, and pointing to sources of further information.

Our own experiences with language revitalization efforts have come primarily through fieldwork in east Asia on several Tungusic languages (all of which are undergoing rapid loss in the number of native speakers), and secondarily through long-term relationships and professional collaborations with fieldworkers and activists in Africa, South America, and North America, particularly the United States. This background has sensitized us to several important facts. First, although many similarities can be found in the causes of language loss around the world, this does not mean that similar approaches to language revitalization can be taken. There are simply too many differences in the political, social, and economic situations facing, say, a community in northern China versus one in southern Africa to make blanket statements about how revitalization should be carried out. Second, an honest evaluation of most language revitalization efforts to date will show that they have failed. There have been enough success stories to warrant optimism about the possibilities of taking a moribund (or extinct) language and moving it to a more vital state, but this is atypical. Creating an orthography or producing a television program for children in a local language is a major accomplishment in its own right, but it will not revitalize a language. A longer-term, multifaceted program, one which requires a range of resources and much personal dedication, is needed. Third, government policies affecting language use in public (or even private) realms are one of the two most basic forces that hinder (or help) language revitalization, the other being the connection that people make between language use and economic well-being for their family. Finally, where successes do occur in language revitalization, they result, perhaps without exception, from the efforts of people who want to speak a local language, and want their friends and neighbors to as well. Even with the best of intentions, an outsider entering into an endangered language situation with the goal of ‘‘saving it’’ will fail. This is not to say that outsiders do not have something important to contribute, such as linguistic expertise, connections to funding sources, moral support, and so on. They do, and their contributions are often vital to a program. But, that said, it is the members of the community where the revitalization is going on who need to be highly invested in the outcome. They need to control decision making; they need to take ownership of the effort and construct the revitalization program which suits their ambitions, needs, and resources.

The lessons from our own experience have greatly influenced the content and tone of this book. We have tried to present practical recommendations without giving the sense that there are guaranteed methods to language revitalization. We have tried to underscore the complexity of factors that must be addressed in expanding the domains where a local language is spoken without overwhelming the reader. And we have tried to keep in mind the balance between thoughtful planning in revitalization and the urgency facing speech communities where fewer and fewer people speak a language that used to be widely employed. […]

The present work is by no means the only resource on language revitalization. There are many. Hinton and Hale’s (2001) The green book of language revitalization in practice is perhaps the closest in spirit to our own work and contains a wealth of insights from people who have been deeply involved in designing language revitalization programs. Joshua Fishman, of course, has been instrumental in raising awareness about language endangerment and how communities can counteract the forces that lead to language shift. His 1991 book Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages is already a classic and should be read by anyone with interests in the question of language revitalization. There are many collections of articles that explore the issues surrounding revitalization. Three of the more recent are Fishman (2001), Bradley and Bradley (2002), and Janse and Tol (2003). There are also a number of excellent books and articles dealing with language revitalization in specific regions of the world. Three that we have found highly instructive are: Amery (2000), King (2001), and Hinton et al. (2002). […]

Over the past fifty years and with increasing frequency, innovative programs have appeared around the world with the aim of revitalizing languages that are at risk of disappearing due to declining numbers of native speakers. The nature of these initiatives varies as greatly as the languages that are their targets. In some instances, they are nearly national in scope, such as the efforts to preserve Irish, yet in other instances they involve small communities or even a handful of motivated individuals. Many of these programs are connected to claims of territorial sovereignty, though cultural sovereignty or a desire to maintain a unique ethnic identity is just as often the explicit goal. While in one context a revitalization effort may be centered around formal education, in another it may be focused on creating environments in which the language can be used on a regular basis.

Although tremendous variety characterizes the methods of and motives for reinvigorating languages, revitalization, as a general phenomenon, is growing and has become an issue of global proportion. There are now hundreds of endangered languages, and there are few regions of the world where one will not find at least nascent attempts at language revitalization. This comes as little surprise when considered in light of the confluence of several socio-historical factors. First, language death and moribundity (i.e. the cessation of children learning a language) are occurring at an exceptionally rapid rate. While the precise number of languages in the world is difficult to determine (see Crystal 2000:2–11 for a concise discussion), and predicting the total number of languages that will cease to be spoken is harder still (Whaley 2003), there is a general consensus that at least half of the world’s 6,000–7,000 languages will disappear (or be on the verge of disappearing) in the next century. As Crystal (2000:19) points out, ‘‘To meet that time frame, at least one language must die, on average, every two weeks or so,’’ a startling fact, to say the least. […]

The sheer number of threatened languages cannot alone explain the ever-expanding number of language revitalization initiatives. To this we must add a second major socio-historical shift, the general trend towards recognizing the rights of minorities, both as individuals and as groups, within modern nation-states. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been a collapse of hegemonic patterns in many portions of the world that had actively, and explicitly, worked to suppress cultural difference, and as a consequence in many places ethnic groups and minorities have increased flexibility in pursuing their own political agendas (Kymlicka 1995). In a very real sense minority communities have been emboldened to pursue territorial, political, and cultural rights. Though this has meant a burgeoning number of ethnic conflicts (Moynihan 1993), it has also meant rethinking human rights at a basic level to include the protection of such things as the choice of language. Consider, as just one example, language from Article 5 of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which states: ‘‘All persons should therefore be able to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons should be entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity.’’ Similar statements can be found in declarations from many transnational organizations, such as the European Union, the Organization for American States, and the Organization for African Unity, as well as in recent legislation in a number of countries. Though the effectiveness of these proclamations and laws in ensuring cultural rights is a matter of some debate, there is little doubt that they have encouraged ethnic communities around the world to pursue activities that assert their cultural identities, and these activities often include programs to promote heritage language use.

A less understood factor that has had a role in the increased interest in language revitalization is ‘‘globalization.’’ […]  Since language is a visible and powerful indicator of group identity, it has accurately been recognized as an important way to maintain links with one’s cultural past and to protect one’s cultural uniqueness in the present.

Lenore A. Grenoble & Lindsay J. Whaley – Saving Languages. An Introduction to Language Revitalization


Fishman (2001) – Can threatened languages be saved ?

Bradley and Bradley (2002) –  Language endangerment and language maintenance

Janse and Tol (2003) –  Language death and language maintenance. Theoretical, practical and descriptive approaches

Amery (2000) – Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian language

King (2001) –  ‘Te Kohanga Reo: Maori language revitalization’. In Hinton and Hale, eds., 119–28 (The green book of language revitalization in practice)

Hinton et al. (2002) – How to keep your language alive

Crystal (2000) – Language death

Whaley (2003) – ‘The future of native languages’. Futures 35:961–73

Kymlicka (1995) – The rights of minority cultures

Moynihan (1993) –  Pandemonium: Ethnicity in international politics

Kwak'wala language teacher Joye Walkus (TEDx Talks)

REVIEW :

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“The second chapter offers an overview of the various factors that affect language endangerment. It develops an analytical framework for characterizing any individual situation. A distinction is made between macrovariables, which include factors such as the global economy or national language and education policies, and microvariables such as language attitudes, religion, literacy, human resources in the communities (i.e. people and their skills), and financial resources. A short case study of Cornish illustrates how many of the factors may interact. […]

Ch. 3 discusses different types of revitalization programs. One type is the total immersion approach, exemplified by the Māori ‘language nests’. Since the 1980s, Māori elders have been coming to preschools to speak Māori with children. This was followed up by schools where students receive all instruction in Māori. Similar programs have been established for Hawaiian and Mohawk. The learners involved in total immersion may be children or adults. G&W discuss advantages and disadvantages with regard to either choice of target generation but do not take a stance on which choice is to be preferred when both are possible. Partial immersion, where the local language is only used for some instruction, is encountered more frequently but works less well. A third type is the master-apprentice programs developed in 1992 in California. Here, an elder who still speaks the language is paired with a learner and the teaching takes place entirely through the oral medium and in real-life situations. […]

The story of the Mohawk language program in Kahnawà:ke, Québec, Canada, is one of dedicated community members who, since 1970, have been building up a program of language immersion. Ironically, it was the policies intended to support another language that spurred the establishement of the Kahnawà:ke Survival School in 1978. Two years earlier, a new legislation had made French the only official language of Québec.”

Søren Wichmann :  Language (Volume 84, Number 4, December 2008)