How to Save a Language

We started off our year-long series on indigenous languages by focusing on languages that are endangered of becoming extinct. The blog series is in recognition of the United Nations naming 2019 as The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019).

This month we take a closer look at how a language can be “saved.”

Language Documentation

While it is difficult to save a language, it can be preserved and potentially revitalized through a process called language documentation.

“Languages have been dying for a long time. For example, Suzanne Romaine said that there were 300 indigenous languages in the New World when Christopher Columbus arrived,” said CETRA’s Anukware Selase Adzima.  “That number reduced to about 175 languages by the year 2000.  So languages have been disappearing for a long time.”

It’s been less than three decades since the phenomena of language endangerment and extinction have been brought into the spotlight, and, according to Adzima, people have responded in different ways.

“Today we see a lot of activism on the part of communities, with support from the general public. In academia, there has been a spectacular expansion of interest in this area, especially in the humanities,” said Adzima.  “Linguistics, comparative literature, translation studies, and sociology have all become more interested in ‘small’ and/or endangered languages and cultures.”

There has also been changes in policy.  Articles 2, 10, 19, and 26 in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights focus on people’s rights with regards to language use.  Another document—Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights—emerged in 1996 at the end of the World Conference on Linguistic Rights. Many people thought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights treated language like other categorizing functions, such as race, color, sex, and religion, which shouldn’t be used as a bar to giving people rights and freedom.  Th Declaration of Human Rights did not recognize that linguistic communities have the right to shape their own lives in their own languages.

The concern was that “smaller” languages and communities were being subordinated to regional politics. The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was put together by 41 PEN Club centers, 61 international NGOs, and 40 experts in sociolinguistics, law and language rights from more than 90 countries across five continents.

“Language documentation is one of the ways the plight of endangered is dealt with. It is basically an attempt to preserve or create archives, including written records, audiotapes, and videotapes, of a language so when it eventually becomes extinct, as much knowledge about the language as possible has been preserved,” said Adzima.

In purely linguistic terms, this approach focuses on producing a very comprehensive linguistic description of the endangered language.

According to Adzima, most of the funding dedicated to saving a language goes towards language documentation.

Language Revitalization

Yet, there is a more proactive approach.  It’s known as language revitalization.  This approach focuses on increasing the number of speakers or creating a new generation of speakers.

An important element of language revitalization is to promote literacy of the endangered language, including through early education programs.  The success of language revitalization also depends on the native speakers, government and public policy experts embracing the idea, continued Adzima.

“We might understand language documentation from an archival perspective but, in many instances, it has to occur before language revitalization,” said Adzima.  “According to K. David Harrison, about 85 percent of the world’s languages have not been documented.  So before those languages can be revitalized, they have to be documented first.”

Thanks to all those around the world who are dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of our endangered languages.