Endangered Languages Part IV: Toward Language Revitalization by Jana Korn C'18

The risk of language endangerment is being faced by minority and indigenous groups across the globe. Nearly half of all the world’s languages are spoken by less than 2,500 people each, making this a pervasive and urgent issue to address. Fortunately, experts, policymakers, and linguists have created a set of policies and methods that are slowing down or halting the process of language endangerment. These language revitalization efforts are absolutely necessary given the loss of identity and knowledge that is lost when a language disappears. There are a variety of methods being used. The most important of these are  government policy, language documentation, and education.

Government policy comes in many different forms. These range from giving minority languages official status to granting land to a minority population to defining the protection of indigenous languages as a human right. When languages are given official recognition and support by a national government, their risk of becoming endangered is lowered. Unfortunately, there is very little incentive for a state to grant a minority language official status. When a language becomes official, it is the language used within government, including all government documents and government communication. This can result in inefficiency within a government, because it leads to more paperwork, documentation, and bureaucratic hurdles.

It has been proven that when a minority population is given ownership over their land, their ability to protect their own language and limit the influence of other dominating languages is strengthened. For example, Canada passed a law a few years ago that required street signs in Inuit lands to be written in both English and Inuit. This new regulation gave equal status to the Inuit people on their land and now allows Inuit children growing up on their native land to see their mother tongue daily. These land ownership issues also relate to larger social and economic issues that face minority communities in isolated areas. Land reforms that favor these marginalized communities help them to achieve recognition from the country and give them the ability to support their own language revitalization efforts.

A third important component of government policy that is currently occurring on an international scale is defining the protection of an indigenous language as a human right. The International Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document, states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Engagement in cultural life is hugely limited by an inability to communicate and participate in your native language. A massive effort by the international community is necessary to define the use and protection of an indigenous language as a human right.

Formal education is arguably the most obvious and crucial method of language revitalization being used to preserve endangered languages. The intergenerational transfer of a language is the most important way to keep a language alive in a community. The support of the educational system in the revitalization of a language can also help to ensure that other, more global languages do not encroach on regional languages. For example, in New Zealand, despite the predominance of English, Maori communities established nursery schools that were staffed by elders of the community and operated entirely in the Maori language. The model was eventually extended to primary and secondary schools, ensuring that the older generation will not be the last speakers of the language. The use of formal education as a language revitalization method also recognizes the value and importance of an indigenous language for a community.

Lastly, language documentation is a little known process that mostly engages linguists and other language experts, but is an essential element in the language revitalization process. Documentation creates a systematic codification of a language for the use of future generations, and is done through dictionaries, encyclopedias, and recordings. This process is especially important for the most at-risk languages, where policy and education are no longer feasible options. Language mapping, an element of documentation, is also important in order to be able to make informed decisions about where to focus language revitalization efforts.

The world is at a turning point in terms of language diversity. There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken worldwide, but as the world becomes more globalized, major lingua francas threaten to overtake less widely-spoken indigenous or minority languages. The more global languages offer opportunities to connect to the world economy, politics, and culture, in a way that minority languages cannot. The world should not turn its back on these endangered languages. When a language is lost, important knowledge encoded in the language is also lost. Moreover, an entire cultural identity becomes at risk of disappearing. It is the responsibility to global leaders, politicians, and linguists to focus their efforts of language revitalization strategies in order to save as many at-risk languages as possible.