UNESCO. (2003). Language Vitality and Endangerment.

UNESCO. (2003). Language Vitality and Endangerment. Presented at the International Expert Meeting on UNESCO Programme Safeguarding of Endangered Languages, Paris: UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000183699

[Basics of language endangerment …]

“A language is in danger when its speakers cease to use it, use it in an increasingly reduced number of communicative domains, and cease to pass it on from one generation to the next.” (p 2)

[Various forces cause language endangerment …]

“Language endangerment may be the result of _external_ forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or it may be caused by _internal_ forces, such as a community’s negative attitude towards its own language. Internal pressures often have their source in external ones, and both halt the intergenerational transmission of linguistic and cultural traditions. Many indigenous peoples, associating their disadvantaged social position with their culture, have come to believe that their languages are not worth retaining. They abandon their languages and cultures in hopes of overcoming discrimination, to secure a livelihood and enhance social mobility or to assimilate to the global marketplace.” (p 2)

[Language loss means other kinds of loss, as well …]

“The extinction of any language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. … Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems.” (p 2)

[Languages need to be applied to human purposes …]

“Meaningful contemporary roles include the use of these languages in everyday life, commerce, education, writing, the arts and/or the media. Economic and political support by both local communities and national governments are needed to establish such roles.” (p 2)

[Negative views of the language speakers …]

“Some speakers of endangered languages come to consider their own language backward and impractical. Such negative views are often directly related to the socioeconomic pressure of a dominant speech community.” (p 4)

[Speakers are key to language maintenance …]

“In the end, it is the speakers, not outsiders, who maintain or abandon languages. Still, if communities ask for support to reinforce their threatened languages, language specialists should make their skills available to and work with these ethnolinguistic minorities.” (p 4)

[Language and culture are linked to the biology of human habitats …]

“Researchers are exploring not just the parallels but the links between the world’s biodiversity and linguistic/cultural diversity, as well as the causes and consequences of diversity loss at all levels. This connection is significant in itself, because it suggests that the diversity of life is made up of diversity in nature, culture and language. This has been called _biocultural diversity_ by Luisa Maffi …” (p 6)

[Multiple factors may be used to assess language vitality …]

“_No single factor alone can be used to assess a language’s vitality or its need for documentation._ … We identify six factors to evaluate a language’s vitality and state of endangerment, two factors to assess language attitudes and one factor to evaluate the urgency of the need for documentation.” (p 7)

[Nine factors; no one factor should be used without reference to other factors …]

“Below we explain the six major factors identified: 1) Intergenerational Language Transmission; 2) Absolute Number of Speakers; 3) Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population; 4) Shifts in Domains of Language Use; 5) Response to New Domains and Media; and 6) Availability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy. Note that _none of these factors should be used alone_.” (p 7)

[“Factor 1: Intergenerational Language Transmission” …]

Degree of Endangerment Grade Speaker Population
safe 5 The language is used by all ages, from children up.
unsafe 4 The language is used by some children in all domains; it is used by all children in limited domains.
definitively endangered 3 The language is used mostly by the parental generation and up.
severely endangered 2 The language is used mostly by the grandparental generation and up.
critically endangered 1 The language is used by very few speakers, mostly of great-grandparental generation.
extinct 0 There are no speakers.

(p 8)

[“Factor 2: Absolute Number of Speakers”]

[… a count of the population language speakers.]

[“Factor 3: Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population”]

[Proportion of the group with which language speakers identify; different affinity groupings …]

“The number of speakers in relation to the total population of a group is a significant indicator of language vitality, where ‘group’ may refer to the ethnic, religious, regional or national group with which the speaker community identifies.” (p 9)

Degree of Endangerment Grade Proportion of Speakers Within the Total Reference Population
safe 5 All speak the language.
unsafe 4 Nearly all speak the language.
definitively endangered 3 A majority speak the language.
severely endangered 2 A minority speak the language.
critically endangered 1 Very few speak the language.
extinct 0 None speak the language.

(p 9)

[“Factor 4: Shifts in Domains of Language Use”]

Degree of Endangerment Grade Domains and Functions
universal use 5 The language is used in all domains and for all functions.
multilingual parity 4 Two or more languages may be used in most social domains and for most functions.
dwindling domains 3 The language is used in home domains and for many functions, but the dominant language begins to penetrate even home domains.
limited or formal domains 2 The language is used in limited social domains and for several functions.
highly limited domains 1 The language is used only in a very restricted number of domains and for very few functions.
extinct 0 The language is not used in any domain for any function.

(p 10)

[“Factor 5: Response to New Domains and Media”]

[Locations of language use can affect language vitality to lesser and greater degrees …]

“Schools, new work environments and new media, including broadcast media and the Internet, usually serve only to expand the scope and power of a dominant language at the expense of endangered languages.” (p 11)

[Languages must be adaptable to changing human applications …]

“If the communities do not meet the challenges of modernity with their language, it becomes increasingly irrelevant and stigmatized.” (p 11)

Degree of Endangerment Grade New Domains and Media Accepted by the Endangered Language
dynamic 5 The language is used in all new domains.
robust/active 4 The language is used in most new domains.
receptive 3 The language is used in many new domains.
coping 2 The language is used in some new domains.
minimal 1 The language is used only in a few new domains.
inactive 0 The language is not used in any new domains.

(p 11)

[“Factor 6: Availability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy”]

Grade Availability of Written Materials
5 There is an established orthography and a literacy tradition with grammars, dictionaries, texts, literature and everyday media. Writing in the language is used in administration and education.
4 Written materials exist, and at school, children are developing literacy in the language. Writing in the language is not used in administration.
3 Written materials exist and children may be exposed to the written form at school. Literacy is not promoted through print media.
2 Written materials exist, but they may only be useful for some members of the community; for others, they may have a symbolic significance. Literacy education in the language is not a part of the school curriculum.
1 A practical orthography is known to the community and some material is being written.
0 No orthography is available to the community.

(p 12)

[Multilingualism may be seen as a social and political threat …]

“When several larger linguistic communities compete for the same political or social space, they may each have their own conflicting linguistic attitudes. This leads to the general perception that multiple languages cause divisiveness and are a threat to national unity.” (p 12)

[“Factor 7: Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies, Including Official Status and Use”]

Degree of Support Grade Official Attitudes towards Language
equal support 5 All languages are protected.
differentiated support 4 Minority languages are protected primarily as the language of private domains. The use of the language is prestigious.
passive assimilation 3 No explicit policy exists for minority languages; the dominant language prevails in the public domain.
active assimilation 2 Government encourages assimilation to the dominant language. There is no protection for minority languages.
forced assimilation 1 The dominant language is the sole official language, while non-dominant languages are neither recognized nor protected.
prohibition 0 Minority languages are prohibited.

(p 14)

[“Factor 8: Community Members’ Attitudes towards Their Own Language”]

Grade Community Members’ Attitudes towards Language
5 All members value their language and wish to see it promoted.
4 Most members support language maintenance.
3 Many members support language maintenance; others are indifferent or may even support language loss.
2 Some members support language maintenance; others are indifferent or may even support language loss.
1 Only a few members support language maintenance; others are indifferent or may even support language loss.
0 No one cares if the language is lost; all prefer to use a dominant language.

(p 14)

[Three levels of effort for language maintenance and revitalization …]

“Strategies for such linguistic activism must be tailored to the particular sociolinguistic situation, which generally is one of three types: Language Revival … Language Fortification … Language Maintenance …” (p 15)

[“Factor 9: Type and Quality of Documentation”]

Nature of Documentation Grade Language Documentation
superlative 5 There are comprehensive grammars and dictionaries, extensive texts, and a constant flow of language materials. Abundant annotated high quality audio and video recordings exist.
good 4 There is one good grammar and a number of adequate grammars, dictionaries, texts, literature and occasionally updated everyday media; adequate annotated high-quality audio and video recordings exist.
fair 3 There may be an adequate grammar or sufficient numbers of grammars, dictionaries and texts but no everyday media; audio and video recordings of varying quality or degree of annotation may exist.
fragmentary 2 There are some grammatical sketches, word-lists and texts useful for limited linguistic research but with inadequate coverage. Audio and video recordings of varying quality, with or without any annotation, may exist.
inadequate 1 There are only a few grammatical sketches, short word-lists and fragmentary texts. Audio and video recordings do not exist, are of unusable quality or are completely un-annotated.
undocumented 0 No material exists.

(p 16-17)

[Factors would be chosen according to identified language preservation needs …]

“… language vitality factors given above must be examined according to the purpose of the assessment.” (p 17)

“If you don’t breathe,
there is no air.
If you don’t walk,
there is no earth.
If you don’t speak,
there is no world.”

(Paraphrased by Yamamoto from a Navajo elder’s words, PBS-TV Millennium Series Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, hosted by David Maybury-Lewis, aired on 24 May 1992) (p 19)

[Navajo elder was Billy Yellow (Navajo), born in Shonto, Arizona, July 15, 1910, died September 15, 2003. Television series episode was number 6 of 10, title was “Touching the Timeless.” Narrator speaks: “Unless you think, there is word. Unless you speak, there is no world.” From 0:53:06 to 0:53:12. Available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/GK88xw_k3mY?t=3183. Bio details from IMDB (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0947404/).]

Selected References

  • Maffi, Luisa, Michael Krauss, and Akira Yamamoto. 2001. The World Languages in Crisis: Questions, Challenges, and a Call for Action. Presented for discussion with participants at the 2nd International Conference on Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim, Kyoto, Japan.
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