Language Revitalization: Not Only Words


Language is one of the most fundamental means of human expression and arguably shapes human civilisation more than anything else. The role it plays in conveying culture and history is essential, and the study of language itself is also invaluable in helping to understand ourselves. However, with colonisation in previous centuries and globalization and immigration during the modern ages, some languages have gradually taken the dominant position while others have declined over time.

There can be no definite estimation of the number of endangered languages. However, according to the statistics provided by UNESCO ( United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and the Endangered Language Project, more than 40 percent of 7,000 languages around the world are endangered at different levels.

Endangered languages are classified into 5 different categories depending on the situation they are facing: A language is vulnerable when it is used by young generations but only in a private context, such as within the home. If children no longer learn a given language as their “mother tongue”, the language will be considered as definitely endangered. When parents stop teaching their children a language and the language is spoken only among older generations it becomes severely endangered. A Critically endangered language refers to a language used only by very few members of the oldest generation, and eventually when there is no speaker left, a language is considered extinct.

Of all the causes of language extinction, colonialism is one of the most common culprits. The easiest way to replace an indigenous culture with that of the colonisers’ is to separate people from their own language. In doing so, the colonisers take control of recorded histories, methods of communication and ways of living. Throughout history, this strategy has notably been used in North America, Africa, and Asia; in Canada alone, there are 24 vulnerable languages, 19 definitely endangered languages, 17 severely endangered, and 35 Critically endangered languages.

Considering the severe extent of global language extinction and the consequent risk of losing cultural, biological, and environmental diversity as a result, urgent action is now needed. Calls for action have received great response from many developed countries, especially from educational institutions, non-profit organizations and certain ethical groups. However, in most developing countries, where native languages are experiencing a great recession, the problem has not yet been entirely recognized.

However, there is hope for the future as the task of language revitalization appears much easier with the help of modern technology. Video recording technology greatly shortens the time-consuming process of decoding transcription sounds and the internet provides convenience for long distance research, whilst computer programming makes the analysis simpler and more accurate.

Just as a specimen in a museum cannot help prevent the extinction of other species, the documentation and record of language cannot fully save a language. A language can only show its value when actively spoken by its native speakers, and its charm is only shown while being used as a mean of communication, a method of expression, and the conveyance of cultures. More effort must therefore be invested into language revitalization, especially amongst minority cultures in well-developed countries.

Helen Jingshu Yao

An international student in Canada, interested in the topics concerning humanity, feminism, and equal access to education for all.