13. The Road Forward for Endangered Languages: How Long, How Hard, and How Expensive?

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Nancy C. Dorian
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania


In the summer of 2015, a Canadian journalist writing for the Calgary Herald reviewed the very considerable measures that the Canadian government had taken in recent years to support maintenance and revitalization of First Nations languages in that country.  There are about 60 aboriginal languages at various degrees of risk in the country, most of them very seriously at risk, and First Nations leaders continue to seek funding for such things as language institutes, aboriginal language programs for students and teachers, immersion schooling, dictionaries, online tutoring, and other supportive measures.  Naomi Lakritz, the journalist, points out that government-funded Aboriginal Head Start pre-schooling has been available since 1998 and costs $59 million (Canadian) per year. An initiative called “First Voices” that provides tutors, interactive dictionaries, and online language labs receives part of its funding from the government’s Department of Canadian Heritage. Five years prior to publication of her article, Lakritz reports, Ottowa quadrupled its funding for preservation efforts in British Columbia alone, supporting instructional materials and youth language camps.

Lakritz is by no means hostile to language preservation and revitalization initiatives. “Languages are precious and they deserve to survive”, she writes, “for they represent the unique and irreplaceable way their speakers perceive and think about the world”. But at the close of her article, after recounting the many streams of government support for aboriginal languages in Canada she asks, “How can this not be enough? If languages are dying out and remaining unlearned despite the millions of dollars spent annually on teaching and preserving them, the problem is not a lack of multimillion dollar initiatives. At some point, people have to take advantage of the opportunities offered them.  If they won’t, that’s not something more money and more programs can fix.”

This is an understandable position, and Lakritz is not the only one to take it.  Journalists in Scotland have raised the same question about government expenditure on behalf of Scottish Gaelic, for example.  A large part of the answer – the major part – is that by the time governments such as Canada’s and Scotland’s have become sympathetic to minority language speakers’ hopes for maintaining or revitalizing their languages, it’s very late in the day. The damage done by previous distinctly unsympathetic governments and by what is often centuries of societal and institutional mistreatment has been so extensive that minority-language populations have little left of their linguistic heritage (often a small number of elderly speakers) and in many cases a painfully understandable reluctance to re-acquire a language that was deliberately stamped out of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. The worst of these stories are by now well known, though no less horrific for that:  North American Indian and Australian Aboriginal children removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own languages and subjected to harsh assimilationist pressures. Even in countries where treatment was less overtly and oppressively cruel, membership in a long-standing minority group such as the Sámi in the Nordic world or the Arvanites (Albanian speakers) in Greece meant social bias and disadvantage that shadow the histories and even the present-day lives of ethnic group members.

Severe biases against minority languages and their speakers often stretch back many generations into the past, sometimes many centuries into the past. The rise of nationalism in the last century and a half has had a tendency to exacerbate the situation for minority-language populations, increasing direct central government influence over outlying regions which in the past enjoyed more independence in spheres that affect language use. More and more exposed to majority-group governance and ideology, members of small language communities can come to perceive adoption of the dominant language as the likeliest route to social acceptance and economic opportunity.

Because of the cumulative effects of long-continued social bias, one can encounter in one and the same heritage group both deep yearning to strengthen or recover the traditional language and great reluctance to reassociate themselves with a language that brought scorn and disdain to parents and grandparents. Languages have no standing of their own, but instead reflect the standing of the people who speak them. If a particular language is spoken exclusively by the poorest and least esteemed segment of the society, it will itself be poorly esteemed. For this reason languages can go rapidly from highly favored to severely disfavored if the fortunes of its speakers change radically, as happened for example with the Incas of Peru and their Quechua language. It was socially supreme before the arrival of Europeans, but reduced after conquest to a stigmatized local language subordinate to Spanish.

If social bias coincides, as it often does, with lesser economic development in an identifiable minority-language region, the combination of stigma and lack of prosperity is likely to undermine the vitality of the language and interrupt transmission of the disfavored minority language in the home and the community. Economic self-interest will then favor acquisition of the majority language in such circumstances, and if the standing of the minority language is low enough, it also favors abandonment of the minority language. If it’s better not to be identifiable as an Arapajo in Wyoming, or an Arvanite in Greece, or a Quechua speaker in Peru, then one of the simplest forms of dissociation is to abandon the ethnic language.

When the failure of home transmission has become severe enough, hopes for maintaining and revitalizing the language necessarily become a matter of providing educational support for children’s acquisition and provision for the even more extensive support that might produce adult second-language learners. Both of these approaches are unavoidably expensive. For minority-language schooling, such things as classroom space, staffing, and some level of curricular development will be needed, and in many cases also orthographic planning, lexical expansion, archiving mechanisms, and so forth.  For adult second-language learning, teaching techniques and materials hat are specially targeted to breaking through the deeply established first-language habits must be developed, and then also social environments provided that encourage use of the second language in the learners’ lives. Adult second-language learning is slow compared to children’s acquisition, requiring extensive reinforcement, and it, too, involves considerable cost.

But Lakritz is right to point out that money is not the ultimate barrier to preserving endangered minority languages.  The people who belong to the ethnic groups in question have to be themselves the major force for revitalization. They have to want their languages to survive fiercely enough to work through the difficult process of transforming what are often private-sphere languages, used mainly in hearth-and-home settings, into more public-sphere languages, used for example in broadcasting and political life. They have to reorder their social interactions so that they can feel comfortable speaking to contemporaries, children, and non-group members in a language that they previously used almost entirely for small-group solidarity or perhaps only with older relatives. They have to feel strongly enough about the value of reclaiming a heritage language to stand up to critics within their own group who see the effort as futile and fear that it will reawaken painful stereotypes that the group suffered from in the past. This is the truly hard part of maintaining and revitalizing minority languages, and it’s true that it can’t be done by other people or brought into being by official funding, even when it’s generous.

Where this fierce desire is present, however, and heritage-language activism is strong enough to refocus group members’ attention on the heritage language, outside funding can make a real difference, supporting measures to reverse some of the damage done over the long — often very long — period when the language was disdained or suppressed. The damage was done over a long time, and repair will also take a long time. Today there is a rising sense that people are entitled to their own language, that human rights include the right to one’s own group language. Undoing injustices and repairing damage are worthy goals, no less with regard to language than with regard to other facets of life. Certainly not universally, but at least increasingly, rights-oriented governments like Canada’s are lending substantial support to maintenance and revitalization efforts. Revitalization initiatives have proliferated around the world in recent years, as minority-language groups have recognized the precariousness of their linguistic heritages and are trying to improve the odds against the survival of their languages. These groups have difficult histories behind them and difficult challenges ahead of them. They will need help, legal and financial, from governments willing to do as the Canadian government has done in moving to counteract the effects of historical wrongs and long-term social disadvantage. Majority-language populations will also need help. They will need journalists who can make clear the long gestation period that led up to the world-wide language endangerment crisis of our time and will make understandable the investment of time and money that is needed to help at-risk language communities recover.