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What is Language Revitalization and How to Revitalize ?

Simply speaking, language revitalization refers to the attempts to maintain endangered languages or to revive an extinct one. According to Tsunoda (2005: 168), various terms have been used to refer such attempts, e.g. language maintenance (Fishman 1964), language revival (Fishman 1964: 53), reversing language shift (Fishman 1991), language preservation (Rigsby 1987: 370; Silverthorne 1997; Wurm 1997), language reproduction (Williams 1992), language restoration (Spolsky 1995: 194), language reversal (Tezozomoc, Danza Azteca Huehueteotl, and Danza Azteca Tenochtitlan 1997: 74), language renewal (Fettes 1997; Daniel Rubin 1999; Amery 2000: 18), language revitalization (Jones 1998; Reyhner 1999: iii; Spolsky 1995: 178), language resurrection (Amery 2000: 17), language reclamation (Amery 2000: 17), language recreation (Thieberger 2002: 325), and linguistic revival (Edwards 1984: 304).


Scholars have proposed many classifications of language endangerment by applying different criteria, among which the four-degree classification, proposed by Hudson and McConvell (1984: 29-30), Schmidt (1990), and Wurm (1998), is widely used. This classification is based on “number of speakers”, “age of speakers”, “transmission to children”, and “functions of the language” and includes:

(a) Healthy/strong languages: all generations use the language in a wide range of activities, including children.

(b) Weakening/sick languages: they are usually spoken by older people, but not fully transmitted to the younger generation.

(c) Dying/moribund languages: only a few speakers remain and no young people are learning them.

(d) Extinct/dead languages: no speakers remain.


Based on this classification, endangered languages often refer to (b) weakening/sick languages and (c) dying/ moribund languages.


The concept of language revitalization could be divided into two parts: language maintenance, which concerns languages that are endangered, but still alive, and language revival, which concerns extinct languages (Tsunoda 2005: 168). Amery (2000: 17-18). A further classification divides language revival into two types, language renewal and language resurrection or language reclamation. Language renewal refers to language revival in situations where there is no fluent speaker left, but a significant amount of the language is known within the community. Language resurrection or language reclamation refers to language revival in situations where the language is no longer spoken and little is known orally within the community, i.e. an attempt to relearn a language from earlier materials on the language.


How to Revitalize Languages?

Fishman (1991: 87) proposes “A Graded Typology of Threatened Statuses” which consists of 8 stages of language loss with Stage 8 being the closest to extinction and Stage 1 being the closest to dynamic survival. He provides a characterization of the situation and suggestions for each stage. Reyhner (1999: vi-vii) provides suggestions on what can be done to promote indigenous language use at each stage based on presentations at the Stabilizing Indigenous Languages symposiums and other sources; and summarizes these 8 stages as follows:


Stage 8: Only a few elders speak the language.

Suggestions: Implement Hinton’s (1994) “Language Apprentice” Model where fluent elders are teamed one-to-one with young adults who want to learn the language. Dispersed, isolated elders can be connected by phone to teach others the language (Taff, 1997).

Stage 7: Only adults beyond child bearing age speak the language.

Suggestions: Establish “Language Nests” after the Maori and Hawaiian models where fluent older adults provide pre-school child-care where children are immersed in their indigenous language (cf. Anonby 1999; Fishman 1991).

Stage 6: Some intergenerational use of language.

Suggestions: Develop places in community where language is encouraged, protected, and used exclusively. Encourage more young parents to speak the indigenous language at home with and around their young children.

Stage 5: Language is still very much alive and used in community.

Suggestions: Offer literacy in minority language. Promote voluntary programs in the schools and other community institutions to improve the prestige and use of the language. Use language in local government functions, especially social services. Give recognition to special local efforts through awards, etc.

Stage 4: Language is required in elementary school.

Suggestions: Improve instructional methods utilizing Total Physical Response (TPR) (Asher 1996), TPR-Storytelling (cf. Cantoni 1999), and other immersion teaching techniques. Teach reading and writing and higher-level language skills (cf. Heredia and Francis 1997). Develop two-way bilingual programs where appropriate where non-speaking elementary students learn the indigenous language and speakers learn an international language. Need to develop indigenous language textbooks to teach literacy and academic subject matter content.

Stage 3: Language is used in places of business and by employees in less specialized work areas.

Suggestions: Promote language by making it the language of work used throughout the community (cf. Palmer 1997). Develop vocabulary so that workers in an office could do their day-to-day work using their indigenous language (cf. Anonby 1999).

Stage 2: Language is used by local government and in the mass media in the minority community.

Suggestions: Promote use of written form of language for government and business dealings/records. Promote indigenous language newsletters, newspapers, radio stations, and television stations.

Stage 1: Some language use by higher levels of government and in higher education.

Suggestions: Teach tribal college subject matter classes in the language. Develop an indigenous language oral and written literature through dramatic presentations and publications. Give tribal/national awards for indigenous language publications and other notable efforts to promote indigenous languages.


What is Language Revitalization?


Indigenous Language Revitalization


What counts as a “success” in language revitalization?


Indigenous Language Revitalization Program at the University of Victoria


Amery, Rob. (2000). Warrabarna Kaurna!: Reclaiming an Australian Language. Lisse: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Asher, J. (1996). Learning another language through actions: The complete teacher’s guidebook (5th ed.). Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Cantoni, Gina. (1999). Using TPR-storytelling to develop fluency and literacy in Native American languages. In Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (eds.), 53-58.

Edwards, John. (1984). Language, diversity and identity. In Linguistic Minorities, Policiesand Pluralism, John Edwards (ed.), 277-310. London: Academic Press.

Fettes, Mark. (1997). Stabilizing what? An ecological approach to language renewal. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 301-318.

Fishman, Joshua A. (1964). Language maintenance and language shift as a field of inquiry. Linguistics 9: 32-70.

Fishman, Joshua A. (1991). Reversing Language Shift. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Heredia, Armando, and Norbert Francis. (1997). Coyote as reading teacher: Oral tradition in the classroom. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 46-55.

Hinton, Leanne. (1994). Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.

Hudson, Joyce, and Patrick McConvell. (1984). Keeping Language Strong: Report of the Pilot Study for Kimberley Language Resource Centre. Broome: Kimberley Language Resource Centre.

Jones, Mari C. (1998). Language Obsolescence and Revitalization: Linguistic Change in Two Sociolinguistically Contrasting Communities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, Annette. (1990). The loss of Australia’s Aboriginal Language Heritage. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Anonby, Stan J. (1999). Reversing language shift: Can Kwak’wala be revived? In Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (eds.), 33-52.

Palmer, Scott. (1997). Language of work: The critical link between economic change and language shift. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 263-286.

Rubin, Daniel S. (1999). Sm’algyax language renewal: Prospects and options. In Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (eds.), 17-32.

Reyhner, Jon. (1999). Introduction: Some basics of indigenous language revitalization. In Jon Reyhner, Gina Cantoni, Robert N. St. Clair, and Evangeline Parsons Yazzie (eds.), v-xx.

Rigsby, Bruce. (1987). Indigenous language shift and maintenance in fourth world settings. Multilingua 6 (4): 359-378.

Silverthorne, Joyce A. (1997). Language preservation and human resources development. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 105-115.

Spolsky, Bernard. (1995). Conditions for language revitalization: A comparison of the cases of Hebrew and Maori. Current Issues in Language & Society 2 (3): 177-201.

Taff, Alice. (1997). Learning ancestral languages by telephone: Creating situations for language use. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 40-45.

Tezozomoc, Danza Azteca Huehueteotl, and Danza Azteca Tenochtitlan. (1997). Revernacularizing Classical Nahuatl through Danza (Dance) Azteca-Chchimeca. In Jon Reyhner (ed.), 56-76.

Thieberger, Nicholas. (2002). Extinction in whose terms? Which parts of a language constitute a target for language maintenance programmes? In David Bradley and Maya Bradley (ed.), 310-328.

Tsunoda, Tasaku. (2005). Language Endangerment and Language Revitalization: An Introduction. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Williams, Colin H. (1992). Agencies of language reproduction in Celtic societies. In Willem Fase, Koen Jaspaert, and Sjaak Kroon (eds.), 307-329.

Wurm, Stephen A. (1997). Prospects of language preservation in the North. In Hiroshi Shoji and Juha Janhunen (eds.), 35-53.

Wurm, Stephen A. (1998). Methods of language maintenance and revival, with selected cases of language endangerment in the world. In Kazuto Matsumura (ed.), 191-211.



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Yanwen Wu. (2018). What is Language Revitalization an How to Revitalize?. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved at: (insert link) 

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