Revitalizing an Endangered Language – Part 1


How is it possible to revitalize an endangered language?

When a language is suppressed by the state (such as Catalan in Spain and all of the Native languages of the Americas), it will either disappear or be sustained secretly by committed speakers. Then when state restrictions lift, the remaining speakers may be elders who are wary of attempts to make the language public, while at the same time they long for their culture to be valued again. Elders are crucial to language revitalization, because the primary means for language to be taught is intergenerational transfer – from an adult to a child.

Today, the most familiar place for intergenerational transfer of culture and language is in the schoolroom.  An adult, either alone or in a small team, transfers their knowledge to a roomful of children and youth.  You know this isn’t easy, for any subject. But with long-term commitment of effort and resources, it has worked for endangered languages.

UNESCO distinguishes four levels of endangerment in languages, based on intergenerational transfer.


Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).

Definitely endangered

Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.

Severely endangered

The language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.

Critically endangered

The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

So can it be done?

In the Western Hemisphere, indigenous Hawaiian and Maori are the great success stories of language revitalization. They were on the brink of extinction within the last generation, but both are now once again widely spoken, living languages. New Zealand even has a Maori-language television channel. Determined, dedicated, community-driven revitalization efforts – that combine coordinated, sequenced learning materials with intensive teacher training — have ensured their survival. Teacher training is key.

Can endangered languages be taught in schools?

They can, and they are! Besides Hawaiian and Maori, the Yurok people of Northern California have seen their language become taught in schools on and near to their reservation. As California and Colorado tribes have shown, getting a state to allow Native languages to be taught in the public schools takes a lot of lobbying.

In the Northern Plains states of the USA, leaders from the Lakota, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and other nations studied the Hawaiian and Maori programs, and saw that new fluent speakers were created from steady instruction by skilled teachers using high-quality materials. Having a troop of committed teachers at all levels, including one-on-one immersion — teachers who talk to each other and coordinate their work — has become the foundation of these Nations’ language preservation and revitalization programs – and has opened up new professional pathways for their teachers.

What ensures the best quality of endangered language instruction in schools?

Three things: 1) Support the teachers, 2) support the teachers, and 3) support the teachers.

What kind of support do you mean?  More in Part 2.


The Language Conservancy provides technical and logistics assistance to indigenous tribes seeking to preserve and revitalize their traditional languages.

(c) 2014 The Language Conservancy

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