What is language revival?

Language revival usually describes situations where a language has suffered some loss or shift to a dominant language and there are people attempting to return it to greater use. It can refer to contexts where there has only been slight loss and people are acting early to stop it going any further, or where a language has not been spoken at all for some time and people are attempting to bring it back into use.

In Australia there has been an attempt to standardise the way we talk about language revival to try and avoid confusion called the Australian Indigenous Languages Framework, developed by the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia in 1993.

It distinguishes three levels of language revival:

Some people use other terms, such as re-awkening to talk about language revival, but these terms are often not as clear in meaning.

The framework also distinguishes language revival from language awareness, where the goal is mainly to learn about the language and maybe use some fixed expressions like greetings and speeches, but not to use it for effective daily communication.

How do you revive a language?

The exact process would be different for each language depending on how much was recorded, remembered, still spoken, and the goals people wanted to achieve. But there are some essential steps that need to be followed. As most of these require some technical skill and would be assisted by a good knowledge of Australian languages, assistance from a linguist familiar with the field would save a lot of time and effort. It is also crucial to involve the best available speakers of the language if at all possible.

A thorough survey should be undertaken to establish what information has been recorded for the language. Is there a grammar or dictionary? Are there any recordings held in archives? As much of that material as possible should be gathered together. At the same time it would be good to establish how much language is still used or remembered in the community. If people remember how to say some words or sentences they should be encouraged to record them, keep using them, and to teach them to as many others as possible. It is critically important to keep any spoken language alive!

Once some progress has been made in these tasks it may be possible to start identifying any gaps in the language. Are there words or ways of saying things missing from the recorded language? What new words might be needed to make it possible to start using the language for modern life? Again, linguists usually have skills and knowledge that will assist in this reclamation stage.

At this point it might be necessary to make a hard decision about whether there is enough language available to try for full revitalisation, or whether only an awareness program can be supported. An awareness program mainly focuses on teaching people about the language and how to say a few words, fixed phrases and maybe speeches, but not to restore it to full everyday use.

If there is no group of speakers of the language, and people intend for it to be spoken again, a group of new speakers will need to be started. Even if there are a few partial speakers it is critical that the number of adult speakers, particularly of childbearing age, is increased as quickly as possible. Only after there are adult speakers will it be possible for children to be raised as native speakers again.

It can be helpful at this stage to introduce literacy in the language, to help people write down what they are learning, write to each other, and increase the presence of language in the environment. However the critical issue is to increase the number of speakers, so the focus still needs to be strongly on speaking.

The next step is to raise children in an environment where only the language is used, or is used as much as possible. They will still learn English, even if their parents never speak it to them. There will be enough English around them anyway to make sure that happens. The difficult part is to support them in gaining full competence in the heritage language that isnít widely used outside the home.

Only after there is a new generation of first language speakers is it necessary to start teaching school subjects through the language. To do this, there would be a need to develop the language in ways that allow new registers, ways of talking and writing in particular situations, to emerge. It wonít hurt to start it earlier, but just teaching a language in school wonít bring it back.

Once this cycle of adult speakers using the language and passing it on to their children is re-established, the language has been revitalised. It will now need effort put in to its maintenance, so it doesnít fall from use again and until it has spread across every generation. This should also involve making certain activities restricted to happening only in language, not in English. It is important that the language is given some functions that are reserved for it alone, to give people a reason to keep on learning, speaking and teaching it to their children, so it isnít lost again.

What is a reclaimed language?

A reclaimed language is one that has passed from everyday use and being transmitted to children, and has later been brought back to life using historical records and peopleís memories. Because of a period of not being used, a lot of knowledge about it will have been lost, and it will have been necessary to actively fill gaps in the language to make it useable again.

A reclamation language is therefore always different to the previous spoken version of the language, even though it comes from the same source. And, especially while it is being reclaimed, some different approaches to teaching will be required from those used for a strong language.

What is the correct version of a language?

The correct version of a language is the one that most speakers use. If there enough people using the language there may even be more than one correct version, or different dialects. If people are actively using the language then their current practices are the true version. What is written in books, or what used to be the way the language was spoken, doesnít really matter any more if the speakers have moved on and are speaking it differently now. English books from 200 years ago reveal the language has changed a lot since then and no-one would suggest going back to that way of speaking now.

Of course, when you are reviving a language that isnít being spoken you will want to try and get the revived version to be as close as possible to the original. However, the lack of current speakers and records will ultimately make this task very difficult, if not impossible. You are certain to be faced with missing and conflicting records, or ones that raise as many questions as they answer. It is also important to realise that even if you start from a version very close to the original, it will still change over time. That is the nature of living languages!

In situations like this the reviving group will have to make some hard choices. It may be possible to borrow from neighbouring languages. Otherwise new words and structures may have to be developed. A linguist can help with this process, sometimes called language engineering but which is more organic. It would involve a linguist working with the community to decide how to make additions or changes to the language. For example, many communities have developed words for days of the week or modern technology and concepts. A linguist can provide advice on how the language created new words in the past (all languages do create new words all the time) so that the community can make informed and collective decisions about how to make changes. 

The alternative is not to continue to revive the language and just to have an awareness program where people learn about the language and how to say a few fixed expressions, but donít aim to return it to everyday use.

How do you stop a language from changing?

You canít. All healthy languages change over time. The only languages that donít change are the ones that are no longer spoken. If you had a time machine and could take a modern speaker of an Australian language back to 1788, they would have trouble understanding their ancestors. But, if you took a whitefella with you, they would have trouble understanding the English people in the First Fleet as well. Both languages would have changed a lot over time.

Australian languages are just as subject to change as others. The loss of many languages across the continent over the last two centuries has been an enormous negative change. From the moment they came in contact with English the languages started to change. The earliest records show the people quickly started borrowing words from English to describe the new animals and objects that they were seeing for the first time. These new words were then very quickly borrowed by neighbouring languages. In this way, English words became incorporated into Aboriginal languages. For example, some Aboriginal languages have a word for cat, based on the English word pussycat. In Gumbaynggirr the word is bujigaan and, in neighbouring Bundjalung, it is budhigehn, while far away in the Western Desert is is putjikat.

Even without the influence of English, linguists have been able to observe features changing in Australian languages, sometimes under the influence of other local languages, and sometimes with no apparent influence at all.

If a language is revived, it must be expected to change. No-one can stop it!

Will teaching a language in school bring it back?

If a language has not been spoken for some time, then teaching it in a school program will obviously mean it is being spoken again. However, it is not likely to cause it to be spoken much outside school.

Lots of people learn a foreign language at school. But, except for holidays overseas or visits to places in Australia where that language is frequently spoken like restaurants, they rarely have much opportunity to use it outside school. And once they leave school they usually lose it fairly quickly, unless they can find opportunities to use it.

Teaching language in school is highly unlikely to bring a language back into use for everyday communication in the community. Students wonít be able to use the language much after leaving school if no-one else uses it in their daily lives. They will have no-one to speak the language to, unless they only mix with their old classmates, and wonít be able use it to do meaningful things. They will just use the same language as everyone else around them is using. It might be the case that a few words and phrases make it out into the wider community and appear in their English speech. But, there is very little chance that whole language will start being used throughout the community.

Teaching language in school is also highly unlikely to cause children to start learning it as native speakers again.

For this to happen parents would need to take specific action to speak the language to their children at least as much as they speak English to them. This is what would be necessary to produce a bilingual child who had two first languages. There is nothing about teaching language in schools that will cause this to happen. For one thing, the kind of language taught in school programs is not the kind of language someone would need to use with a baby. For another, parents would need some training and support to help them succeed.

To revive a language to being spoken widely and as the first language of children requires specific actions and a long-term plan that is supported by, and engages, enough members of  the community.

How can we get the language spoken in the community again?

Revitalisation theory suggests that the first step to returning a language to being spoken in the community is to teach it to the adults, especially the adults who are likely to produce the next generation of children. This would take a lot of time, and a lot of effort and commitment from all the people involved.

Once a new generation of language-speaking adults had been established, their job would be to bring up their children as speakers of the language. To do this at least one parent would need to speak exclusively in the language at home. Even if both parents spoke mostly in language to their children, the children would still learn English from the rest of their family and others in the community.

If the children in the community are taught the language before the adults, the children will have no-one to speak the language to at home or after they leave school. However, if the adults are taught first, the children will be able to speak to the adults and use the language at home while they are learning. And by the time the children have children, there will be grandparents who can look after the kids and speak language to them. This is the way intergenerational transmission can be restored.

These two steps would return the language to being spoken by some members of the community and return it to being transmitted from adults to children. These two activities are what define a living language.

To achieve the best results it would be good to also have a school language program. However, the best model would be to have an immersion or bilingual school to allow the children to be educated in their own language.

Do you have to be able to talk about everything in the language?

No, but if you want to stop language from being lost, it is best to have some things that are only talked about in language.

If itís possible for people to conduct all aspects of their life in English, there is little reason for them to speak another language. They would get little benefit from it except a sense of pride and group membership, and that is rarely enough to stop a language from being lost.

The use of Latin in the Catholic Church provides a good illustration. When church ceremonies were conducted in Latin the priests had to learn to speak it to perform the ceremonies with understanding, and many other Catholics learnt it so they could be more meaningfully involved. Latin had died as an everyday language centuries before (actually, it had evolved into Italian, French and Spanish). But, its use as a ceremonial language for a large religion ensured that many people around the world kept learning and speaking it.

However, when the church changed its position to allow the mass to be said in the local language, there was little reason to learn Latin any more. So, people just stopped. Latin is now very rarely learned or spoken.

In the same way Australian languages need to have some reserved uses where only they can be spoken. This gives people a reason to keep speaking them. In areas where ceremonial life is strong, it could be ceremony. But it would be better if there were also more everyday activities as well. In some North American communities where bingo is popular, they conduct the weekly bingo games in language. In some places community meetings must be conducted in language Ė if you canít speak the language you have to get a speaker to represent you, and you can only vote in language. This gives people an incentive to make sure they can speak for themselves.

For some aspects of life that are culturally foreign and not easily spoken about in the language, it may be easier to just stick to English. The time and effort involved in trying to adapt the language to talk about, say, nuclear physics may not be worth it and would be better spent on supporting people to talk about everyday things.

People can speak their own languages for some things and use English for others. This is how most bilinguals work. While there is a lot of overlap, they donít usually speak about everything in both languages; they tend to use them for different purposes.

What are language protocols?

Protocols are simply guides to how things should be done. When they concern interaction between people they can be thought of as codes of conduct or just statements of what is considered good manners. They are decided by people and intended to give guidance as to how certain situations are best handled. Most importantly, they are supposed to make sure things happen smoothly without mistakes, offence or embarrassment.

In language revival people often make reference to protocols. For example, people may say there are protocols regarding whether language can be taught on or off country, or who can teach or learn a language. We know that historically, and even now in those remote areas where languages remain strong, people would just learn a language by mixing with each other as part of their normal lives ‑ not by being taught by someone acting as a teacher, and not in any situation like a modern classroom. People were, and still are, great travellers and often picked up other languages from visitors and from visits to different country, sharing it like they share everything else. This suggests it was unlikely that there were such restrictive rules in the old days, apart from very special situations like ceremonies.

Nowadays, because many languages are fragile, people naturally want to protect them and so may restrict who can teach and learn them, and where the teaching can take place. However many communities that initially imposed quite strict restrictions, have relaxed them over time, as their fears proved unfounded. Some communities, where originally only Indigenous students from the local community were allowed to learn the language in school, now find the programs are more successful when all students are included. 

These days people need to make decisions about how best to save and revive their languages. As many people no longer live on their own country there need to be ways for them to learn their language that donít require leaving where they live now. A protocol that prevents them from learning their language because they live off country is only going to hinder revival and limit peopleís access to their language.

Communities need to work out what they want to achieve and the best way to do it. Protocols need to reflect these ambitions and help to make them easier to achieve. Itís up to the community to decide.

Who is a linguist?

Some people use the word linguist to mean anyone who speaks more than one language. For others it means a person who works in a university or language centre and conducts research on languages. People also talk about community linguists when they refer to community members who use their skills to produce material for language learners or work alongside research linguists.

In the early days much of the language information was recorded by soldiers, settlers, missionaries, magistrates and Ďprotectorsí. Although they may have studied another European language at school, none of these people had training in linguistics; they were just interested individuals who tried to write things down based on English sounds and spelling. For that reason their records can be quite misleading and need skilled interpretation. Unfortunately some people still believe that these folk were professional linguists and blame them for the lack of reliable, good quality records.

On this site linguist is used to mean someone who has accredited, university level skills in language analysis and an understanding of the grammar and sound systems of all human languages, which they can apply to any language in a professional capacity. People who speak an Australian language are simply referred to as speakers.

People who have rights to an Australian language, but do not necessarily speak it, are called language owners or heritage speakers.

Community people, usually speakers, who use their language knowledge to work alongside linguists, are referred to as community linguists or language workers. Community linguists often share many of the skills of linguists, often having a particularly extensive knowledge of the grammar and sound systems of their own language.

Like all professionals, linguists tend to specialise in particular areas so, for example, communities looking to enlist a linguist to help them, need to ensure that they find one with the right kind of skills and  experience for the task. In addition, it is important to ensure that the community and linguist can work well together, in a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. If you are planning to engage a linguist to work with your community you will want to find out if they are suitable by finding out if they done this kind of work before and, if not, whether they can explain to the community exactly what skills they offer. If they have previous experience, you will want to find out which community they worked with and if they come with that communityís recommendation.

The Australian Linguistic Society developed a guide to the Linguistic rights of Aboriginal and Islander communities in 1984 that is binding on its members.


This page was first published on November 25, 2013 and was last updated on November 28, 2013. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise. If you have any suggestions for ways in which this document could be improved or made more accessible to users, please do not hesitate to contact the author, John Hobson.