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Strategies For Safeguarding Language Communities Based Upon Previous Language Revival Movements

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Languages are vehicles for the transition of cultural knowledge and act as a lens by which individuals view the world. Linguistic diversity is threatened by language contact due to invasion and colonisation and more currently the forces of globalisation and language homogenisation (Zuckerman & Walsh, 2015). Seven thousand languages are spoken in the world today however nearly half (3 billion) of the world’s current population speak one of only twenty languages as their first language (Austin & Sallabank, 2015). More than forty percent of these 7000 languages are in an endangered state ('Endangered Languages Project', 2017). UNESCO defines a language as endangered when it is no longer used by speakers for communicative purposes and intergenerational transmission has ceased (UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, 2003).

Many language revival and language revitalisation projects have been established by linguists, academics and community leaders in the hope of slowing down language loss processes. Language loss occurs within communities that have lost their last generation of native speakers. Language revival programs aim to renew these languages that have experienced language loss. Whereas, language revitalisation programs attempt to reinvigorate languages that are still being partially acquired through intergenerational teaching but are in an endangered state. The current fragile state for minority languages creates an environment where preparation for the eventual loss of language experts is necessary for linguistic survival. Language communities preparing for this transition can derive strategies from previous successful language revival programs and analyse the mistakes from unsuccessful language preservation attempts. This essay will explore the successful language revival program utilised to inject new life into the Hebrew language alongside the language revitalisation of Gumbaynggir. The many attempts to revitalise the Irish language illustrate ineffective strategies that when analysed give insight into whether certain programs have the ability to improve or should be avoided entirely.

In order to revive or revitalise a language, conservational linguists must first explore the factors causing the language to be endangered. Languages can become endangered due to communities being in physical danger and losing members during natural disasters, war and genocide. This is exemplified by language death due to genocidal violence towards the Palawa people during the ‘Black War’ (Austin & Sallabank, 2015). Over time, marginalization of a language community due to cultural or political pressure can discourage use of a language and cause forced linguistic assimilation. Direct repression by legislation restricting use of minority languages or indirect pressure due to economic advantage of a majority language may trigger language abandonment. These factors can be a catalyst for language shift within a minority language community as native speakers no longer use the language and intergenerational transmission processes discontinue. Once factors for language endangerment have been explored processes to actively preserve and revive the language can begin.

Firstly, conservational linguists must work alongside native speakers to document the language within dictionary corpus, extensive grammars and archives of traditional stories and songs. Modern language documentation processes can positively utilise technology as shown within the Gamilaraay community. Monetary issues due to lack of funding, and social stigma associated with learning the language can be overcome with use of digital platforms including online tools and social media. Interactive games, visual aids such as animations and audio recordings are used to learn and document the language (Smith, Giacon & McLean, 2017). Video and audio recordings of native speakers preserves vital linguistic information about the accent, tone and syntax used within the language that cannot be documented by text. Facebook groups allow community members to connect and share their language learning journey creating a sense of community and inspiration for further programs. These digital platforms that have previously been viewed as a danger to minority languages have potential for success in language revitalisation programs in the future (Jany, 2017).

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The British conquest and colonisation of Ireland began a forced language shift towards English and a decline in the number of native Irish speakers. English was the majority language spoken by the middle of the 19th century, with Irish continuing to decline until recently. In the 2016 census 1.7 million people answered yes to being able to speak Irish. However, the “self-reporting” nature of the census reduces accuracy of these results as individuals may report to speak Irish whether they are fluent or if they only know a few phrases. Further questions revealed that only 74,000 individuals spoke Irish daily (Irish Central Statistics Office, 2016). Within the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) 66.3% of the population could speak Irish, with only 21.4% speaking Irish daily. The number of Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht has declined since 2011 by 2.2%. Governmental structures, individuals and organised groups have been taking measures in an attempt to revive the Irish language since the middle of last century. The Irish language movement is prominent in the literature and is often used as an exemplar of language revival failure.

Official structures such as the Irish government and the European Union (EU) have implemented many strategies in an attempt to revive the Irish language. In 2005 Irish was declared as an official language of the European Union and is currently the least spoken EU official language ('Working languages of the European Parliament', 2019) The Irish government took a two-step approach, firstly incorporating Irish into the education system, to encourage use in the English speaking region. Secondly, language maintenance measures were established to protect the Gaeltacht community. Governmental language revival policy relied heavily on the National School system. Fr. Timothy Corcoran of the Irish National Teacher’s association believed that Irish could be restored by the school system, “even without aid from the home” (Titley,1983). Initially, Irish was used at the infant level in some classes, however over time Irish became the medium of instruction during all classes. The amount of Irish used was at the discretion of each school, with 704 schools using exclusively Irish in 1939 (MacNamara, 1996). The use of Irish within the school setting was found to be detrimental to children’s learning of English and showed no improvement in Irish proficiency. Infants were no longer taught in Irish in 1970, and by 2016 ordinary schools had significantly reduced their use of Irish in the classroom setting. (Edwards, 2010) Incorporation of Irish into the education system was ineffective in reversing language shift. Use of Irish in a classroom setting does not transfer to Irish use in the home or wider community. Further to this, children forced to learn the language in school, or through external classes may hold feelings of antipathy towards the language. Such feelings reduce the likelihood of such individuals encouraging their own children to learn the language. Social interactions, workplace communication and wider media are all English- based leaving no communicative function for Irish. Without a communicative function the patriotism surrounding Irish is not enough of a motivating factor to save the language.

Widespread emigration from the Irish speaking region due to the isolated geographic location, and economic weakness of not only the region but the language itself. The Gaeltacht has a low employment rate due to lack of urbanisation. As English is the prestige language speakers of the Irish language are disadvantaged with many high-ranking positions requiring English shifting the language of the workplace (Carnie, 1995). Until 1973 proficiency in Irish was required for employment in the Police force, army, legal profession or civil service (Edwards, 2010). Whilst this could be beneficial for Irish use, in reality majority of personnel hardly used the language. Another issue threatening the longevity of the Irish language is the ageing population of Irish speakers within the Gaeltacht. In order to reduce emigration from the Gaeltacht the government gave a small grant to Irish speakers called the deonatas. Whilst this was motivating, the Údarás na Gaeltachta department was established to overlook sociocultural and monetary aspects of the Gaeltacht. (Údarás na Gaeltachta, 2019). Economic investment into the creation of jobs in order to increase the employment rate and retain Irish speakers was successful. There was a subsequent population rise, however not necessarily of Irish speakers. It is vital for the survival of the language that the Irish speaking population of the Gaeltacht is stabilised. Without that population the future of Irish will be unsteady and continue declining.

Hebrew had become a heritage language not spoken since the Roman empire and only used in situations of written prayer. Millions of people from different linguistic backgrounds, mostly holocaust survivors, participated in a mass migration to Israel. The establishment of this Jewish Nation required a national language and Hebrew, the language of prayer was deemed the appropriate choice. Modern Hebrew was invented by Eliezer Ben- Yehuda, speaking to his son only in Hebrew creating words for modern items and ideas. The language sprung to life with the first native speakers in 1,800 years and continues to be strong to this day with 9 million Hebrew speakers (Bensadoun, 2010). Many linguists claim this impressive revival to be the most successful recovery of a “dead” language to date. Therefore, revival linguists can investigate and compare strategies implemented during the revival of Hebrew to current and future revival programs. Firstly, there is extensive and exhaustive language documentation of Hebrew in religious literature including the Hebrew Bible and Misnah. As Hebrew is already present within the community, positive language attitudes have already been established. A level of prestige and familiarity is associated with the Hebrew language due to literature exposure in the synagogue. Such language attitudes help ease the community into the language change alongside other contextual factors associated with the community. Indigenous Australian language revitalisation programs should adopt certain positive attitudes towards language revival attempts used in the Hebrew revival. An openminded approach towards the emerging hybrid language should be adopted. When a communicative need is no longer fulfilled by the language it must be flexible and adaptative in order to survive. Influences from surrounding languages including English on the languages grammatical form or the introduction of modern words and concepts should be accepted.

Further to this, acceptance of the current state the language is in by community members is needed before the process of language revitalisation begins. For example, some Gumbaynggir community members objected to the claim that “most Indigenous languages in ‘settled’ Australia are extinct” saying that “their language has never died” (Walsh, 2001). Community leaders can use this tenacity to inspire such individuals to assist with the revitalisation program. These pre-revival approaches align with those used by the Hebrew revival that emphasise “observation, documentation and characterisation of the community”. Currently many revitalisation movements are under indigenous community control run with the help of conservational linguists. This context applicable both to Indigenous and the Hebrew community creates an environment for self-respect and empowerment however sustained commitment from external funding sources must be obtained to ensure longevity. The geographically isolated nature of rural indigenous communities prevents cohesion and sharing of knowledge learnt from successful and unsuccessful programs. Annual conferences of all regional programs, an Australian language revival handbook, and use of social media may be helpful resources for programs to implement in the future.

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Strategies For Safeguarding Language Communities Based Upon Previous Language Revival Movements. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/strategies-for-safeguarding-language-communities-based-upon-previous-language-revival-movements/
“Strategies For Safeguarding Language Communities Based Upon Previous Language Revival Movements.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/strategies-for-safeguarding-language-communities-based-upon-previous-language-revival-movements/
Strategies For Safeguarding Language Communities Based Upon Previous Language Revival Movements. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/strategies-for-safeguarding-language-communities-based-upon-previous-language-revival-movements/> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Strategies For Safeguarding Language Communities Based Upon Previous Language Revival Movements [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/strategies-for-safeguarding-language-communities-based-upon-previous-language-revival-movements/
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