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date: 28 March 2023

Endangered Languagesfree

Endangered Languagesfree

  • Chris RogersChris RogersLanguage Conservation
  •  and Lyle CampbellLyle CampbellUniversity of Hawaii


The reduction of the world’s linguistic diversity has accelerated over the last century and correlates to a loss of knowledge, collective and individual identity, and social value. Often a language is pushed out of use before scholars and language communities have a chance to document or preserve this linguistic heritage. Many are concerned for this loss, believing it to be one of the most serious issues facing humanity today. To address the issues concomitant with an endangered language, we must know how to define “endangerment,” how different situations of endangerment can be compared, and how each language fits into the cultural practices of individuals. The discussion about endangered languages focuses on addressing the needs, causes, and consequences of this loss.

Concern over endangered languages is not just an academic catch phrase. It involves real people and communities struggling with real social, political, and economic issues. To understand the causes and consequence of language endangerment for these individuals and communities requires a multifaceted perspective on the place of each language in the lives of their users. The loss of a language affects not only the world’s linguistic diversity but also an individual’s social identity, and a community’s sense of itself and its history.


  • Language Families/Areas/Contact
  • Sociolinguistics

The endangered languages crisis is believed by many to be one of the most serious issues facing humanity today, posing moral, practical, and scientific issues of enormous proportions. An endangered language is one at risk of extinction, or more precisely, one predicted to cease to be the means of human communication for a specific cultural or social group. When speakers of a language shift to another language and give up their own, great amounts of knowledge are lost. A large number of the world’s languages are endangered, and it is in this sense that humanity faces a crisis.

Reports of the world’s languages in crisis are commonplace in the early 21st century. It is not unusual in media reports to see “language obituaries”—where the death of a language is reported with the death of its last speaker. Some cases are well known. Ubykh, a West Caucasian language, was reported to have “died at daybreak, Oct. 8, 1992,” when its last speaker, Tevfik Esenç, passed away (Crystal, 2000, p. 2). Eyak of Alaska lost its last speaker when Marie Smith Jones died at the age of 89, on January 21, 2008, as was reported widely in the media. Other examples include Klallam, a Salishan language, whose last speaker, Hazel Sampson, died at the age of 103, on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, which was also widely reported. Such news items put a human face on the problem of language endangerment; they also spread alarm about the crisis of language endangerment. However, most languages that lose their last speaker are not reported in widely circulated obituaries. In this article, we report the various facets of language endangerment that scholars and language groups whose languages are at risk grapple with. In the course of this account it should become clear why many link the word “crisis” with endangered languages.

The responses to this social and linguistic issue fall into three categories: (1) causes and consequences of language endangerment, (2) language documentation, and (3) language revitalization. Intersecting all of these is concern for ethics and best practices for collaborating with language communities in their language revitalization efforts. This article explores each of these responses to language endangerment. In the section “What Identifies a Language as Endangered,” what is meant by the label “endangered language” is defined. The section “Causes, Consequences, and Issues of Language Endangerment” deals with the causes and consequences of language endangerment generally. The section “Language Documentation” discusses language documentation in relation to language endangerment. Finally, the section “Language Revitalization” gives an overview of language revitalization.

1. What Identifies a Language as Endangered?

More precisely, it is not a language itself that is endangered, but rather it is the continued use of the language that is under threat, and this can be due to various social, political, and other non-linguistics reasons. This makes the endangerment of a language not a “yes-or-no” matter; rather, characterization of a language as endangered depends on a range of variables. Some of the main criteria used to determine whether a language is endangered, and the nature and extent of the threat, are:


The absolute number of speakers—There is a direct relationship between the number of native speakers of the language and its level of endangerment. Similarly, there is an indirect relationship between the number of native speakers and the likelihood that the language will be cease to be used as the main means of communication.


The lack of intergenerational transmission—If a language is not being learned by children in the traditional way, passed on from one generation to the next, it is essentially doomed to extinction, unless revitalization efforts for it prove effective.


A decrease in the number of speakers over time—As the number of speakers decreases, the likelihood of extinction increases.


Decrease in domains of use—As the contexts in which the language is used are diminished, the level of endangerment increases.

Different approaches measure the degree of endangerment a language faces—its vitality—based on these and other criteria. For example, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, utilizing these criteria in its “Language Endangerment Index (LEI),” provides a score for the degree of endangerment each language faces. Other measurements of language endangerment and linguistic vitality have been suggested. Fishman’s (1991) GIDS—“Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale”—has been influential. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (Moseley, 2010) uses its “Language Vitality and Endangerment Framework.” Ethnologue (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013) utilizes Lewis and Simons (2010), an extended version of GIDS, called “Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS).”

It is important to document every language. However, based on these endangerment/language vitality scales, languages that are in the most urgent need of documentation—the most critically endangered ones—can be identified and hopefully targeted for more immediate attention.

2. Causes, Consequences, and Issues of Language Endangerment

Language extinction is hardly recent. In addition to well-known cases, such as Etruscan, Hittite, Sumerian, Yana, the language spoken by Ishi (the famous last survivor of his tribe who died in 1916), hundreds of other languages have passed into history. So why the current alarm? It is because the magnitude and rate of language extinction is greater now, much greater, than at any other time in the world’s history. In his often-cited call-to-arms for endangered languages, Michael Krauss calculated that “at the rate things are going, the coming century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind's languages” (Krauss, 1992, p. 7). More recently the Catalogue of Endangered Languages calculates that, on average, one language goes extinct every 3.5 months. This acceleration in the rate of language loss and the number of recently extinct languages is shocking and foreshadows worse to come.

The evidence of the increase in language loss and the gravity of language endangerment are seen in the history of language extinction and the current status of languages everywhere. Of the 312 known languages spoken in North America when Europeans first arrived, 156 are extinct (50%). In what is today the United States, there were then ca. 280 languages; now 161 no longer have native speakers (56%). All of the remaining 119 are endangered, most of them critically so, and only about a dozen of these are still being passed on to children. California had some 100 American Indian languages at the time of the Gold Rush, ca. 1850, but only 18 are still spoken today; none of them is being learned by children through intergenerational transmission. The statistics for languages no longer spoken and for those critically endangered are similarly very high in Australia, much of Latin America, and stretches of northern Eurasia; in fact, no region of the world is exempt from language endangerment. For example, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages lists 407 languages as “critically endangered,” with 257 of these languages having fewer than nine speakers. Unless language revitalization programs for these languages prove successful, all will soon be extinct. Altogether, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages lists 3,134 living endangered languages—another 77 languages are listed as dormant or awakening language, meaning they have no known native speakers—that is, 45% of the 6,901 living languages in the world listed by Ethnologue (as of November 27, 2014). Another 203 languages are listed by Ethnologue as having no known speakers.

The number of extinct language families offers another perspective on the crisis. Of the ca. 420 independent language families known in the world (including language isolates, language families that have only one member), already precisely 100 are extinct—no language belonging to any of these families has any remaining native speakers. This means that 24% of the linguistic diversity of the world, calculated in terms of language families, has been lost. Of all the millennia in which languages could have disappeared, two-thirds of these language families became extinct only in the last 60 years, dramatically underscoring the recent highly accelerated rate of language extinction. Worse, many more languages and language families are on the brink of losing their last native speakers and will soon follow, portending a very drastic change in the world’s linguistic diversity.

The loss of a specific language is comparable in gravity to the loss of a single species, e.g. the Bengal tiger or the right whale. However, the extinction of whole families of languages is a tragedy comparable in magnitude to the loss of whole branches of the animal kingdom, say the loss of all felines or all cetaceans. In this scenario, it is easy to imagine the distress of biologists attempting to understand the history and classification of the animal kingdom with major branches missing. However, gravity of this magnitude is what we are confronted with in the case of endangered languages, with a quarter of the language families—of the linguistic diversity of the world—already gone.

While languages are not alive in the sense that animals and plants are, endangered languages are often compared to endangered species, and the comparison reveals that the threat is far greater in its magnitude for the world’s linguistic diversity than for the diversity of biological species. Figures reported for endangered biological species vary widely in the literature, some elevated, no doubt, in part due to well-meaning attempts to raise public sympathy for the cause and in part due to the fact that very little is known about many species. A representative count lists as endangered or critically endangered about 13% of mammals, 6% of birds, 20% of amphibians, and 1% of plants as endangered (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) [IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources]. Clearly the threat to biological species is far smaller in scale than to human languages. As noted, 45% of all languages are currently listed as endangered (Catalogue of Endangered Languages).

2.1 Causes of Language Endangerment

As Morris Swadesh said already, in 1948, “the factors determining obsolescence of language are non-linguistic” (Swadesh, 1948, p. 235; see also Brenzinger, 2007, Grenoble & Whaley, 1998; Nettle & Romaine, 2007). Many factors can contribute towards language loss, varying with local circumstances, factors involving economy, politics, demography, geography, history, religion, education, social status, technology, globalization, and in the attitudes of particular speakers. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss details of all the possible causes of language endangerment, a few general factors stand out.


Economic factors are often considered telling as causes for language endangerment. They include the lack of economic opportunities, on-going industrialization, rapid economic transformations, shifts in work patterns, migrant labor, resource depletion, forced changes in subsistence patterns, communication with outside regions, resettlement, dispersion, migration, destruction of habitat, and globalization, among others.


Political factors affect the vitality of languages all over the world. These involve discrimination, repression (as in the boarding schools for North American Indians and Australian Aborigines, where use of native languages was forbidden and punished), official language policies, and so forth.


Subjective attitudes (motivation) of the speakers towards the languages under threat and the national languages that surround them affect language vitality. Among these factors are the symbolism of the dominant language (e.g., as a political symbol of nation; as a symbol of civilization, of progress, the future vs. the past, of peasants, campesinos, and similar groups; as a cultural symbol of international and urban vs. local and rural), and the stigmatization of a local language (low prestige of the endangered language).


Institutional support is considered essential for assuring the vitality of a language. Its absence can influence speakers to shift away from a minority language. Institutional support includes representation in schools, churches, government, and the media.

Each of these factors affects the access new speakers, particularly younger generations, have to a local, or minority, language. Lack of access can limit ability to acquire the language and can drastically discourage speakers from using or learning the endangered language, speeding language shift. In many situations, multiple factors working together affect a language’s vitality. These situations include: military service; marriage patterns; rapid population collapse; lack of physical proximity among speakers; the desire for literacy; a law of compulsory education in a specific language; a lack of social cohesion among speakers; cultural destruction (e.g., war, slavery, famine, epidemics); neglect (education offered in only the dominant language); lack of opportunity to practice the language at home; parents’ lack of proficiency in the native language; poor teaching (e.g., of isolated vocabulary rather than communication skills); parents switching to the dominant language to ease children’s success at school.

Speakers of endangered languages can sometimes inadvertently increase its endangerment. For example, in demands for language purity, some speakers may insist on correcting mistakes made by novice learners of the language. This discourages learners who may consequently abandon the effort to learn the language. Similarly, speakers of a language might not actively do anything to reverse language shift and may wrongly assume that the presence of classes on the language in schools is sufficient to revive or strengthen the language. The mere presence of classes on the language in schools seldom works to retard or reverse language shift.

2.2 Why Care?

Some might assume that the disappearance of the world’s languages is the concern of only a few scholars, a tragedy only for linguists. However, this view would be mistaken. Language loss affects individuals, communities, and even the world in acute ways. The global impact of language extinction is seen in the answers to three questions: What causes language extinction? Why does it matter that languages are becoming extinct? Is linguistic diversity important? Responses to such questions are varied.

2.2.1 Social Justice

Language loss is often not voluntary; it frequently involves violations of human rights, pushed by repression, oppression, prejudice, violence, and at times by ethnic cleansing and genocide. We should care because it is a matter of right and wrong.

Even at less violent extremes, language loss is typically experienced as a crisis of social identity. For many communities, work towards language revitalization is part of a “larger effort to restore personal and societal wellness” (Pfeiffer & Holm, 1994, p. 35). Some scholars and community activists insist that language shift leads to damaged communities and dysfunctional behaviors. They argue that one’s psychological, social, and physical wellbeing is connected with one’s native language; it shapes one’s values, self-image, identity, relationships, and ultimately success in life. Numerous indigenous voices represented in the literature testify to the role of language in their cultural and personal identity, and to the impact of language endangerment on that identity.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, establish the linguistics rights of native peoples. Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson (1995) surveys ways to combat linguistic discrimination, and Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) addresses various areas of linguistic rights including policy formation, the inherent value of language, identity, education, and globalization.

2.2.2 Human Concerns

Languages are the treasure houses of information for history, literature, philosophy, and art. Their stories, ideas, and words help us make sense of our own lives and of the world around us—of the human experience, of the human condition in general. When a language goes extinct without documentation, we lose incalculable amounts of human knowledge. To illustrate, we mention just two areas, literature and history.

Literature. The life-enriching value of literature is well understood: “by studying literature, we learn what it means to be human.” (CliffsNotes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, MA). Moreover, literature is not confined to written texts; all cultures have oral literature. People everywhere have grappled with the complexities of their world and the problems of life, and their insights and discoveries, which are represented in their literatures, oral or written, are of value to us all. When a language becomes extinct without documentation, taking all its oral literature, oral tradition, and oral history into oblivion, all of humanity is diminished.

History. We study history “to gain access to the laboratory of human experience” (American History Association, Washington, DC). Great reservoirs of historical information are recovered from the investigation of languages. Historical linguistics and language classification tell us how languages are related and give us history of human groups, information about how they are related, their contacts and migrations, their homeland and past culture. All this information and other insights into shared human experiences are irretrievably lost when a language is lost without adequate documentation.

Because languages contain or reflect the world’s knowledge and wisdom, the loss of literature and historical information means loss in the range of potential ways of experiencing and understanding the world.

2.2.3 Loss of Knowledge

The reservoir of linguistic diversity constitutes one of the greatest treasures of humanity. This means that the loss of the hundreds of languages that have already disappeared is a monumental intellectual catastrophe on many levels. For example, each language encodes knowledge about the natural and cultural world it is used in, knowledge often unknown outside of the small speech communities where the majority of endangered languages are spoken. When a language dies without adequate documentation, it takes with it this irreplaceable knowledge. Loss of such knowledge could have devastating consequences, it is argued, because it can relate to humankind’s very survival. Reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of the human species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw.

The Seri (of Sonora, Mexico, with only 700 speakers) provide a compelling example. The Seri have knowledge of “eelgrass” (Zostera marina L.), with a whole set of vocabulary dealing with eelgrass and its use, for example xnois “eelgrass seed.” It is “the only known grain from the sea used as a human food source . . . eelgrass has considerable potential as a general food source . . . Its cultivation would not require fresh water, pesticides, or artificial fertilizer” (Felger & Moser, 1973, pp. 355–356). As the argument goes, it is plausible to speculate about a future in which some natural or human-caused disaster might compromise land-based crops, leaving human survival in jeopardy because of the loss of knowledge of alternative food sources, such as the knowledge of eelgrass reflected in Seri. Speculation aside, it is clear that documentation of the languages of small-scale societies and of the knowledge reflected in their languages has significantly benefitted humanity.

Medicine offers other examples. It is often claimed that 75% of plant-derived pharmaceuticals were discovered from examining traditional medicines, where the language of curers often played a key role (see, for example, Bierer, Carlson, & King, 1996). If these languages had become extinct and knowledge of the medicinal plants been lost, all of humanity would be impoverished and human survival would be less secure. To cite just one example, Paul Cox, working with Epenesa Mauigoa, a taulasea (traditional healer), on Upolu, Samoa, described 121 herbal remedies, including knowledge of the mamala plant (Homalanthus nutans) and the anti-viral drug prostratin, used to treat yellow fever. In trials at the National Cancer Institute, it proved effective against HIV Type 1 (Cox, 1993, 2001). Loss of this traditional Samoan knowledge would have been a loss for all of humanity.

So goes the argument that reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptive strength of humans as a species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw for survival. Of course, in principle it would be possible for a society to give up its language, shift to another, and find ways to talk about traditional knowledge in the new language. However, in case after case, when a language was not passed on to the next generation, the knowledge of the natural and cultural world encoded in that language failed to be transmitted as well.

2.2.4 Scientific Understanding of Language

A central goal of linguistics is the understanding of human cognition and human language capacity through the study of what is possible and impossible in human languages. Discovery of previously unknown linguistic features and traits in undescribed languages contributes to achieving this goal and advances knowledge of how the human mind works. Language extinction is an unspeakable disaster, impeding achievement of this goal. The following example illustrates this.

The discovery of the existence of languages with OVS (object-verb-subject) and OSV (object-subject-verb) basic word orders forced abandonment of a previously postulated language universal. Greenberg (1978, p. 2) proposed that “whenever the object precedes the verb, the subject does likewise.” However, a number of languages with OVS and OSV basic word order have been discovered, most of them spoken in small communities in the Amazon.

Discovery of languages with these possible basic word orders not only forced abandonment of the postulated universal, it required revision of numerous other theoretical claims about language. It is all too plausible, given what has happened to indigenous languages at the hands of unscrupulous loggers, miners, and ranchers in Brazil, that the few languages with these word orders could have become extinct before they were documented, leaving us forever with erroneous assumptions about what is possible and impossible in human language and how that reflects human cognition.

Documentation of endangered languages has frequently demonstrated the importance of obtaining adequate descriptions of these languages. This is illustrated, for example, by recent documentation of Nivaclé, a language of Argentina and Paraguay with about 8,800 speakers, where a hitherto unknown speech sound was discovered: /͡kl/, similar to a “k” and “l” pronounced together and released simultaneously. The discovery of a previously unknown linguistic trait is significant for learning the full range of what is possible in human language, but this case has even broader significance. The new Nivaclé sound has implications for general claims about language. The Nivaclé sound system has, in addition to /͡kl/, also a voiceless “l,” but has no plain “l.” This violates several proposed generalizations about laterals and liquids in human languages (Maddieson, 1984, p. 88). One claim is that “a language with two or more liquids is expected to have a lateral / non-lateral contrast between them”—basically this means that a language with more than one liquid is expected to have both “l”-like and “r”-like sounds. However, in Nivaclé both liquids, /͡kl/and voiceless “l,” are laterals (“l” sounds), and there are no non-lateral liquids (no “r” sounds). (For this and other implications of Nivaclé laterals for language universals, see Palosaari & Campbell, 2011.) This example shows how the discovery of a new speech sound in threatened languages can have implications for theoretical claims about language.

In examples, Oro Win (Chapakuran, with five speakers) has a speech sound that is a voiceless laminal dental stop, followed by bilabial trill (Ladefoged & Everett, 1996). Pirahã (Muran, 300 speakers) has a voiced bilabial trill (rare) and a lateral-apical double-flap (unique) (Everett, 1984). Pirahã, with only 11 consonants, and Oro Win, with only 12, have some of the smallest consonant inventories in the world, and yet they have very complex, unique speech sounds. These complex sounds are counterexamples to Lindblom and Maddieson’s (1988) “size principle,” which claims that smaller inventories of consonants tend to contain only consonants that are simpler (to produce or to perceive) and that more complex consonants are found in languages with larger consonant inventories.

In all three of these cases, the language involved could easily have become extinct before being documented, given social and political trends affecting these communities. This would have left linguists with no inkling that such traits are possible in human languages. Linguists document endangered languages to discover information of this sort, to determine the full range of what is possible in human languages.

2.2.5 Peace through Loss of Languages?

Finally, we turn to an erroneous view that needs rectification—the equation of language loss with increased understanding and fostering world peace. It is often asserted that if we had fewer languages, we would understand each other better and live in greater harmony. But monolingualism is no guarantee of “understanding,” as attested by the bloody conflicts of recent times in monolingual Northern Ireland, Syria, or the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs and Croats have a common language; the 1994 genocide in Rwanda involved Hutu and Tutsi, both speakers of the same language, Kinyarwanda. This contrasts with relatively peaceful and officially multilingual countries like Belgium, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, and Tanzania. Multilingual and multi-cultural countries need to understand that national unity and understanding are not fostered by monolingualism or ethnic cleansing, but that recognition of minority languages rights may be the best way of bringing about mutual trust, peace, and ultimately, national unity. We need to expose the erroneous assumption that people and countries cannot be both multilingual and successful, and show, rather, that there are significant benefits from multilingualism.

3. Language Documentation

A brief review of the history of linguistic ideas shows that language documentation is among the oldest traditions (see Koerner & Asher, 1995 and Robins, 1997 for examples). However, language documentation has never been a homogenous enterprise; the goals, methods, and uses of language documentation have always been adapted to a specific culture or community. Since the end of the 19th century, language documentation has been closely associated with endangered languages (Boas, 1911 is representative of this trend). In this regard, views differ as to what language documentation is and what goals it serves. Approaches cluster around two general perspectives, one more text or “record” oriented, and the other more involved with analysis.

Many follow the more text-oriented approach of Himmelmann (1998, 2006), which contrasts language descriptions and language documentation. In this view, language documentation “aims at the record of the linguistic practices and traditions of a speech community” (Himmelmann, 1998, pp. 9–10), and “language documentation may be characterized as radically expanded text collection” (Himmelmann, 1998, p. 2). For Himmelmann (2006, p. 1), “a language documentation is a lasting, multipurpose record of a language,” and the author defines language documentation “as a field of linguistic inquiry and practice in its own right which is primarily concerned with the compilation and preservation of linguistic primary data and interfaces between primary data and various types of analyses based on these data.”

Woodbury (2011) has a similar definition: “Language documentation is the creation, annotation, preservation and dissemination of transparent records of a language” (p. 159). The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project website says that language documentation emphasizes data collection methodologies, in two ways: first, in encouraging researchers to collect and record a wide range of linguistic phenomena in genuine communicative situations; and secondly, in its use of high quality sound and video recording to make sure that the results are the best possible record of the language.”

With statements such as these, it is not surprising, as Himmelmann (2012, p. 187) tells us, that many have misinterpreted this approach to mean that “documentary linguistics is all about technology and (digital) archiving,” “documentary linguistics is just concerned with (mindlessly) collecting heaps of data without any concern for analysis and structure,” and “documentary linguistics is actually opposed to analysis.”

In the perspective that focuses more on analysis, adherents hold that language documentation “involves the development of high-quality grammatical materials and an extensive lexicon based on a full range of textual genres and registers, as well as audio and video recordings, all of which are fully annotated, of archival quality, and publicly accessible” (Rehg, 2007, p. 15). In short, in this view language documentation includes a grammar and a dictionary, as well as analyzed and annotated texts/recordings representing a large range of genres.

Rhodes, Grenoble, Berge, & Radetzky (2007, p. 3), in the statement from the Linguistics Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation (CELP), lists as necessary for adequate language documentation all of the following: all the basic phonology; all the basic morphology; all the basic syntactic constructions; a lexicon that (a) covers all the basic vocabulary and important areas of special expertise in the culture, and (b) provides at least glosses for all words and morphemes in the corpus; and a full range of textual genres and registers.

In these two general perspectives, there has been disagreement about the demarcation between language documentation and description or analysis. However, as Himmelmann (2012) explains, in spite of misunderstandings, there is broad agreement, but with differences of emphasis. All agree that documentation should include a rich corpus of recordings, and most agree that a grammar and dictionary can be a valuable part of language documentation, though some place greater emphasis on a large number of recordings representing many genres and on the technology for recording and archiving, while other give more attention to the description and analysis, which includes a grammar and dictionary. We can take adequate language documentation to have as its goal the creation, annotation, preservation, and dissemination of transparent records of a language where a fully adequate record is understood to include production of a grammar and a dictionary, along with a rich corpus of analyzed recordings.

4. Language Revitalization

Language revitalization is a general term covering all activities, projects, plans, or goals that aim to reverse language shift, the trend towards language loss. In discussions of language endangerment, language documentation and language revitalization are both of central importance. In the push for language revitalization, the most telling question has been: Is it possible to revitalize a language? The goals, outcomes, and motivations of language revitalization may differ for different individuals and communities. These divergent expectations make it difficult to measure the success of specific language revitalization efforts. Questions of the following sort arise with regard to measuring revitalization success: Is a new generation of speakers required? Does there need to be an increase in the number of speakers? Does the majority of the speech community need to support use of the local language? Do children need to be educated in their heritage language?

Success, measured in terms of increased numbers of native speakers, is rare, unfortunately. The language revitalization literature tends to emphasize success stories, Choctaw, Mohawk, Basque, Hebrew, Maori, Welsh, and Hawaiian, for example. But success is relative. It is not always measured by the groups engaged in language revitalization the way linguists might measure it. For them, success might also be assigned relative to the “social capital” engendered by the program—for example, the improved performance in school of children involved in revitalization programs.

Although measurement of success in language revitalization is complicated, and at times controversial, some techniques and strategies are accepted as more effective in reaching a community’s goals than others. Principal ones include:


Language nests (preschool, Head Start programs, nursery programs), for example, Māori Kōhanga Reo and Hawaiian Pūnana Leo.


Master-apprentice programs: a master (an elder, native speaker) and an apprentice (committed learner).


Language immersion instruction.


High school language classes or university language classes.


Language camps, such as Wānanga reo for Māori in New Zealand, intensive week-long language retreats.


Summer work-education programs, such as the Shoshone/Goshute Youth Language Apprentice Program (SYLAP).


The Breath-of-Life program.

Other strategies are varied and include: geographically dispersed elders teaching by telephone, language “clubs” and language centers, promotion of written forms of the language (e.g., signs, websites, chat rooms), radio, television, videos, newspapers columns, pedagogical materials, traditional storytelling, e-mail, and so forth. Where culturally appropriate, speaking contests, awards for indigenous language performances or publications can be useful.

The goal of all language revitalization programs is to increase the speaker population of a language. This has been most successful when learners are immersed in using the language as a communicative tool. Those programs that have received the most attention merit additional discussion here.

4.1 Language Nests

This is an immersion-based approach to language revitalization that originated as part of Māori language revival efforts, called Kōhanga reo. Language Nests are preschool total immersion programs designed to enhance learning and use of the endangered language by young children, though some attempt to involve parents and other family members as well. Older speakers of the language take part in the language nest, in early childhood education, with the goal of fostering intergenerational transmission of the language. The language nest has proven valuable to revitalizing Māori in New Zealand; it has been replicated in the Hawaiian Pūnana Leo program; and today there are language nests for many endangered languages in many parts of the world.

4.2 Master-Apprentice Program

The master-apprentice approach is a one-on-one immersion program for language learning, mostly for adults. It involves a contract between a “master” (native speaker, usually an elder) and an “apprentice” (someone committed to learning the language, usually a younger member of the group). The master-apprentice teams sometimes involve already existing relationships, for example, a grandparent and grandchild, an aunt and niece. The program encourages speaking, using only the endangered language. Reports show that it works best when the apprentice learns early how to ask questions in the threatened language, and not just vocabulary. Progress in learning the language is aided by varied activities, including learning traditional culture, and doing things together. Some successful cases have provided compensation for team members’ time, funded, for example, by grants to tribes from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) in the United States, tribal casino funds, or other government or educational financial support. Each member of the team commits to spending 10–20 hours a week together in language-learning activities. Often the successful apprentices can later become teachers themselves and language advocates for their community or cultural group. In all cases, this type of collaboration involves hard work and a long-term relationship.

No matter which program or approach is used for language revitalization, a number of considerations need to be taken into account to maintain a language or to promote its increased use:

Age distribution of speakers.

Cultural heritage.

Current revitalization efforts.

Demography of speakers.

Endogamous marriage patterns.

Ethnic identity.

Geographical isolation.

Government intervention.

Historical status.

Institutional support.

Kin structure.

Language status.

Number of speakers.

Perception of the language’s status (if seen as modern).

Political orientation.


Social structure and institutions.

Symbolic value of a language.

5. What Can Be Done?

The world’s linguistic diversity is under threat. The acceleration in rates of language extinction is alarming, and the number of endangered languages will continue to grow. We maintain that this gives linguists and others the responsibility to act rather than sit by and watch the precipitous loss of the world’s intangible linguistic heritage. As is evident from what is covered in this article, answers for how to respond to the crisis are not always clear. Nevertheless, the following responses can be recommended.


Foster community-based approaches. A community must be convinced of the worth of its language.


Promote consciousness of the catastrophic effects of language loss, among speakers of the language (and those whose heritage language it is) and among members of the mainstream population, especially leaders and policy makers.


Demonstrate that the threatened language is as complex and as suited for communicating as the dominant language.


Reestablish pride in and value for the language. This entails the active support and participation of individuals throughout the community, as well as the development of teachers and curriculum designed to meet current and future needs.


Obtain collaboration from many people and organizations; this is essential. Parents, school administrators, government officials, community leaders, and even linguists must work together for the success of language maintenance projects.


Foster collaborative partnerships between communities and organizations with resources and expertise in language stabilization efforts.


Document the language. All languages need to be documented and described for communities and individuals to have access to them. A dictionary or grammar can be a legitimizing force, affecting attitudes about the status of the language, and can provide the basis for preparing language revitalization materials for that language.


Set clear, realistic goals. Since there is no one single way to document or revitalize a language successfully, goal setting is an essential function for any language community. This includes setting goals about who will learn, who will teach, what is be documented and conserved, and how success will be measured.

Further Reading

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  • Gippert, J., Himmelmann, N. P., & Mosel, U. (Eds.). (2006). Essentials of language documentation. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Grenoble, L. A., & Furbee, N. L. (Eds.). (2010). Language documentation: Practice and values. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
  • Grenoble, L. A., & Whaley, L. J. (Eds.). (1998). Endangered languages: Current issues and future prospects. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grenoble, L. A., & Whaley, L. J. (2006). Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, K. D. (2007). When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and erosion of human knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Harrison, K. D., Rood, D. D., & Dwyer, A. M. (Eds.). (2008). Lessons from documented endangered languages. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
  • Himmelmann, N. (1998). Documentary linguistics and descriptive linguistics. Linguistics, 36, 161–195.
  • Himmelmann, N. (2006). Language documentation: what it is and what is it good for? In J. Gippert, N. P. Himmelmann and U. O. Mosel (Eds.), Essentials of Language Documentation (1–30). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Hinton, L. (2002). How to keep your language alive: A commonsense approach to one-on-one language learning. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.
  • Hinton, L., & Hale, K. (2001). The green book of language revitalization in practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Nettle, D., & Romaine, S. (2007). Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Rogers, C., & Campbell, L. (2011). Endangered languages. Oxford Bibliographies Online.
  • Tsunoda, T. (2005). Language endangerment and language revitalization. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.


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