5. Why save endangered languages, and what for?

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Julia Sallabank
Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, University of London


My interest in language endangerment and revitalisation is long-standing. Ever since I was very young I have been fascinated by Guernesiais (“Guernsey Norman French”),  the indigenous language of Guernsey (in the Channel Islands between England and France), which I consider to be my “heritage language” because my mother comes from the island and my father spent some of his formative years there. I always wanted to learn it, but it was not until the age of 40 that I had the opportunity. I had always assumed that the aim of learning or knowing a language is to use it as much as possible, but I’ve recently found that this is not the case for everyone.

Even when I was a teenager I was aware that the number of speakers of Guernesiais was declining and that they mainly belonged to the older generations. I watched displays of traditional-style dancing and wondered why there were no young people taking part, whereas just across the water in Brittany, Breton dancing and ‘fest-noz’ (night festivals) were highly popular among young people in their late teens and early twenties. At the time of writing (2015) there are thought to be only five people under the age of 60 who are capable of holding a sustained, impromptu conversation in Guernesiais. So, I wondered, aren’t young people interested in traditional language and culture? Or is there some other reason why these are not being passed on effectively?

From an early age I was also aware that Guernesiais (and its speakers) were regarded with affection, but also with ridicule. It became clear that attitudes play a key role in the maintenance and loss of languages. As with many other minority vernaculars, until the last 30 years or so Guernesiais was seen as “not useful” compared to French or English, and even as an impediment to social advancement. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century it became clear from anecdotal reports and the media that attitudes towards Guernesiais were becoming increasingly positive. I became interested in how attitudes can change, and in ways of “saving” endangered languages.

Much of the coverage of language endangerment, in both the media and in academic literature, has been fairly pessimistic in that it highlights “language death” and the “threat” to linguistic diversity, rather than on the numerous language revitalisation movements that have arisen in the last few decades. Media coverage also often focuses on the “last speakers” of a language. Both of these tendencies reinforce the impression that endangered languages belong to the past and there is “no hope” for the many small languages of the world. An interesting recent newspaper article, which seems to follow these trends but then challenges them, is “A Loss for Words: Can a dying language be saved?” by Judith Thurman, published in the New Yorker on March 30th, 2015. The “last speaker” that Thurman starts off by interviewing is aged  just 21, and the wide-ranging discussion is upbeat, focusing on indigenous people’s reasons for wanting to keep their languages alive and some examples of success stories.

I want to focus on efforts to raise awareness of language endangerment and to challenge, even reverse it, looking at the example of Guernesiais. I also want to look at why people want to maintain, learn and revitalise endangered languages, and what it means to “save a language”: particularly what it means to the people involved. All too often linguists forget that languages are not just patterns of words but are spoken by people: so it’s important to investigate people’s reactions to language loss, and their motivations for trying to reverse it.

The term ‘language policy’ is often used to refer to such reactions, especially at governmental level. But individuals and families also have language policies, although they are often not overt or conscious ones. For example, several people have told me how when Guernesiais speakers married non-speakers, English tended to become the family language. They explained that they wanted to avoid a situation where one parent felt left out of the conversation. But where one language has much lower social status than the other, societal attitudes must surely play a role in the choice of family language. One speaker recounted: ‘When I was little it [Guernesiais] was the first language that I learnt and my mother took a lot of stick for allowing me … it was early 50s, the war was over and so on and it wasn’t fashionable at the time. A lot of the other mothers [said]: “oh gosh you know you’re letting her speak patois and when she goes to school she won’t be able to learn – she’ll be a dunce” and all the rest of it.’

The influence of educational institutions on language attitudes and practices cannot be underestimated. Schools reinforced the belief that Guernesiais was merely a peasant dialect, fit only for illiterates. Many older people report that children who could not speak English had unhappy experiences at school, so parents started speaking English in the home to prepare and protect their children. These kinds of comments  are common in endangered language contexts:

‘My younger brother and sister were smacked at school for speaking Guernesiais – even in the playground.’

‘My daughters understand everything but they don’t want to speak it – because their friends made fun of them at school.’

‘I was put down at school for being from the country and didn’t admit to speaking Guernsey French’.

Because schools play such a major role in reinforcing the low status of minority languages, revitalisation movements often try to reverse this by promoting languages through the school system. Another reason is because language campaigners see that the future of the language is with young people. They recognise that the language is no longer being learnt in the home, and hope that school- teaching will enable the language to “skip a generation”: that the children will go on to speak it with their own children.

There is a wide range of ways in which endangered languages can be included in formal education.  In the most effective cases, such as Welsh in the UK or Māori-medium schools in New Zealand, all subjects are taught through the language (‘immersion’ teaching). Then there is bilingual education, with varying proportions of languages. In other cases, minority  languages are taught as school subjects. The minimum option (like in Jersey and Guernsey)  is extra-curricular “language clubs” taught by volunteer teachers.  All of these options require varying amounts of resources for teacher training, materials, etc. if they are to be done effectively.

Until 2007 there was little or no official support for Guernesiais, and most language support activities are still run by voluntary groups and individuals. The activities focus on two main areas: performance in cultural festivals and extra-curricular lessons for children. Volunteers go to schools once a week to run half-hour extra-curricular sessions in lunch hours or after school. These lessons are popular and have spread to eight out of 14 primary schools (public and private). The big problem with this kind of lesson, however, is that it provides too little, not often enough. The American Army Language School estimates that 1300 hours’ exposure to another language is necessary for fluent acquisition, even if the teaching is of high quality. It is clear that neither the quality nor quality requirements are being met in Guernsey: with 30 minutes per week, for a maximum of 40 school weeks a year, it would take at least 50 years to produce fluent learners. So far there is no evidence that any of the learners have progressed beyond beginner level.

In Guernsey, as in many other places, school-based teaching has not led to widespread use of an endangered language; indeed, it is often found that a focus on schools tends to replace home-based learning. People find it easier to campaign to change the school curriculum than to change their own and their neighbours’ behaviour.

Voluntary and charitable work is a strong tradition in Guernsey, but it also has disadvantages:  in the extracurricular lessons there is no syllabus, no teacher training, little coordination and no accountability. Another potential problem is that the lessons take up most of the available time and energy of the relatively small circle of people involved in language-related activities, which may have led to a decrease in other activities. As the volunteer teachers are mostly retired, there is concern that there are not enough proficient younger adults to take over in the future. It could therefore be argued that it should be a priority to increase the number of younger adult proficient speakers. There are evening and lunchtime adult Guernesiais classes available, but they currently extend no higher than elementary level. Language learning can also be carried out in less formal and more community-based ways, e.g. mentoring or buddying schemes. Recent examples in Guernsey have included pairing Guernesiais speakers with songwriters for a song project which culminated in a concert, and ‘language speed-dating in the pub’ sessions.

The main annual language event in Guernsey is the “Guernsey-French” section of the Eisteddfod, a general cultural competition named after the Welsh festival. This is now one of the few opportunities to speak and hear Guernesiais publicly. It includes recitations of poems, short stories and Bible readings, songs, sketches and plays, and has classes for beginners, intermediate and fluent speakers. The number of schoolchildren taking part has increased hugely in the last ten years; while the increase in participation from both children and their parents in the audience is to be welcomed, due to space restrictions it has become necessary to hold the children’s section on a separate evening, which has reduced interaction between older speakers and young learners. In the adult sections, participants and audience members welcome the opportunity to celebrate what they see as their traditional culture. Many participants dress up in old-fashioned clothes (not necessarily traditional dress) and there is a strong feeling of nostalgia, in the words of the 2011 adjudicator, for “the language of our youth … of our grandfathers”.

Although cultural festivals are an important expression of linguistic pride and identity, and provide an opportunity to meet speakers and to use the language during the event, the focus is on linguistic identity as display rather than on language as a living part of everyday life; even people who win prizes for their recitations cannot necessarily hold a conversation in Guernesiais. As more non-speakers enter who have learnt set pieces without much other knowledge of the language, judges “help” them by commenting in English, and so the Guernesiais environment is diluted.

This leads to the question of what it means to “save a language”. Local languages and dialects are often called “vernaculars”, which  means the language spoken by ordinary people (often contrasted with formal written languages). But highly endangered languages are usually no longer spoken in everyday life, and no longer passed on to children in the family. Linguists are increasingly referring to them as “post-vernacular languages”, which also opens up a range of other possible motivations for using a language, where communication is no longer the primary purpose. In this context, a major focus for language-related activities is the performing arts, which as mentioned earlier, do not necessarily require language fluency.

Returning to attitudes, the prestige of Guernesiais is growing, and it is generally now seen as a valuable part of island heritage. For example, local cheese, beer, coffee, etc. are given local-language names or slogans. Similarly, on the neighbouring island of Jersey, the government web page devoted to its indigenous language, Jèrriais, describes it as “precious because it is a treasury of information about the past as well as a symbol of Jersey’s independent identity in the present and something of value to pass on to the future”.

This reason for “saving” endangered languages is for their symbolic value as markers of local identity rather than for communicative purposes. It may be no coincidence that the main language-related activities in both Jersey and Guernsey, extra-curricular language lessons and language festivals are also, for all intents and purposes, also symbolic in nature. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and people involved may sincerely believe that they are “doing something to save our language”. Nevertheless, such activities are unlikely to lead to Guernesiais becoming a primary language of socialisation again. Indeed, in an interview in the ‘Guernsey Press’ in 2004, Jonathon Le Tocq, a Guernesiais-speaking member of the island parliament who promoted the extra-curricular lessons (and who was elected Chief Minister in 2014), said: “I’m under no illusion that it’ll become our business language, but it is a vital part of our culture”.

Are greetings and symbolic phrases enough to “save a language”? They are a common feature of language revitalisation movements in Australia, where some indigenous languages are being pieced together from fragmentary records after not being used for up to 200 years. In such cases, any use is more than none. But Guernesiais still has native speakers.

It is important to learn from the experiences of language revitalisation in other places.  A book published in 1971 to inspire supporters of Celtic languages stressed that “A language cannot be saved by singing a few songs or having a word printed on a postage stamp. It cannot even be saved by getting “official status” for it, or by getting it taught in schools. It is saved by its use …”. The Māori Language Commission in New Zealand issued guidelines in 2007 stating that what they call “regenerating” a language involves:

(a) raising people’s awareness of language and language issues,

(b) having positive attitudes towards and valuing a language,

(c) learning the language,

(d) continuously developing the language, and

(e) using the language.


This illustrates the vital importance of thinking about why we want to save our endangered languages and what we want them for, before they slip into minimal symbolism without our noticing.

The next few decades will be a challenging period for highly endangered small languages like Guernesiais and Jèrriais, as practically all the traditional native speakers pass away. With the foresight to record them while we still can, and a core of committed language enthusiasts to keep them going, local languages might be retained and re-established as a core value: hopefully not only as symbols but as an accepted part of everyday language use.