In his book Language Death, David Crystal starts by looking at the scale of the threat to minority languages. There are debates over the definition of “language” and estimates of the number of languages vary, but a number somewhere around 6000 is plausible. Perhaps more important is the distribution of speakers: Only 4% of languages are accounting for 96% of people and 25% having fewer than 1000 speakers.
There are different ways of classifying “danger levels”, but there is no doubt that a large number of languages face extinction in the immediate future, while in the longer-term even quite widely spoken languages may be in danger. (see Crystal 2000:10) According to SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) and “The Ethnologue”, an online Library on endangered Languages, almost half of the 6800 languages in the world are considered to be “critically” endangered. That means that parents are no longer teaching the language to their children and are not using it actively in everyday matters (cf The Ethnologue, 20022).Order now
In Australia, for example, the vicious circle started by the European colonization. The Western society introduced products, such as food, clothes, means of transport and alcohol, which were new for Indigenous people. Australia’s Indigenous Languages proved incapable of adapting to this new, western way of life and way of thinking. The development of new technologies, especially in the area of communication, clearly promotes the English language. The English media controlled contemporary life at the expense of Indigenous traditions and languages. The modern world had simply become to fast for Australia’s Indigenous languages.
These factors, which are all directly or indirectly connected with each other, show the high complexity of the process of language loss. The contact with the white people caused the extinction of the formerly strong bond between language, landscape and identity among Aboriginal people. Annette Schmidt, an Australian Linguist, calls this process “the downward spiral of reduced language use and loss” and describes it the following way: The downward spiral of reduced language use (Schmidt 1990)
Five stages of language Loss Robert M.W. Dixon, an Australian Linguist has brought some light into the controversial issue of language loss, and tried to answer the question when a language cannot be revived any more. He established a classification of 5 stages of language loss: STAGE 1: Language X is used as the first language by a full community of hundreds of people and is used in every aspect of their daily lives. Some of these people will also know other languages (another Australian language, or English, or both) but only as a second language. Everyone thinks in language X.
STAGE 2: Some people still have X as their first language (and think in it) but for others it is a second language, with English as the preferred medium (and these people may think in English or in a mixture of English and X.) At this stage the language is still maintained in its traditional form, with the original phonetics, grammar and vocabulary (although the second language speakers will not have so wide a vocabulary as traditional speakers).
STAGE 3: Only a few old people still have X as their first language. For most of the community, English is the dominant language (which they think in). Some of those with X as a second language may still speak it in a fairly traditional way, but younger people tend to use a simplified form of the language, perhaps putting together words from X in English word order. The original conceptual system of X may have been replaced by the English system. Instead of having separate labels for mother’s brother and father’s brother (relations that have a quite different status within the kinship systems of every Australian tribe) they may use one label to cover both kinds of kin – this could be a word from X whose meaning has been altered, or just the English uncle.
STAGE 4: Nobody now knows the full, original form of X; no one could fully understand a tape recording made of a traditional speaker on or two generations before. Some members of the community speak a modified version of X, with simplified grammar; at most they will know a few hundred words. Even this is likely to be mixed in amongst English sentences. The younger people speak a variety of English that includes just a few words from X.
STAGE 5: Everyone in the community speaks, and thinks, in English. There may be a few words from X still used but these are treated grammatically as if they were English words (with plural -s, past tense -ed, and so on). When is language loss not reversible anymore? Again, opinions are divided on the topic of the reversibility of language loss. A reasonable approach is done by Schmidt (1990:106): “the likelihood of ‘success’ in Aboriginal language revival depends very much on how the term is defined”. That means that it is better to define the term in a more modest way. Reviving certain words and phrases, and bringing the extinct language to a status, comparable to ancient Greek or Latin could be seen as the best, realistic result.
After this set of information about the pessimistic and dull situation of minority languages, one question might arise: What can be done about it? Or even: What can we do about it? Steve Johnson, an Australian linguist who dealt with endangered Aboriginal languages mainly, distinguishes between four types of Language Revival, for each of them he has a special term: Language continuation Here we have a language still being used by and between families for all situations and their daily life. Any maintenance efforts would most likely be aimed at helping this state of affairs to continue.
Language renewal In this situation the language is still fully used by adults, but the children are no longer actively speaking it. A strong effort must be made either to return to a state where children again use the language as their own, or at least acquire it as they become adults, if the speakers want their language to continue in daily use. Language revival Very few older people still know the language. It will be necessary to teach adults as well as children if the language is to be spoken again, and to decide where and how it should be used.
Language resurrection All speakers of the language have died. The only source of the language is written or taped material. If it is to come into use again, then it will have to be taught by people who have learnt it second hand from these materials, and the result will almost certainly not be exactly the same as the original language. The main goal of all efforts in language maintenance and revival is to keep or build up a strong and working transmission link. That means that the language has to be spoken by parents and their children in every situation of their lives. If that transmission link is destroyed, the relationship between children, their clan and their cultural heritage is heavily disturbed. Then, it is almost impossible to rebuild it, at least it would take an enormous amount of time.
Joshua A. Fishman claims that all languages independent from the stage in which they are in, can be reversed on the condition that the appropriate measures are taken and the process is given enough time. (Fishman 1991:12) R.M.W. Dixon (cf 1989:31-33) describes the possibilities in a more realistic way. Although, Fishman’s thesis can be seen as basically right, one must not forget that there are limits; limits which are set by reality.
Dixon claims that language at Stage 2 of his 5 stages of language loss chart have the greatest and most realistic likelihood to be revived. He proposes measures like full bilingual education, videos recording traditional stories and legends which motivate people to use their Indigenous language more frequently in everyday life. An example could be, trips into the nature, where children get a chance to become familiar with the Indigenous names of plants and animals. In addition, the children get a chance to identify with their cultural heritage.