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  • Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization
  • Søren Wichmann
Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization. By Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. ii, 231. ISBN 0521016525. $33.99.

Since the early 1990s awareness of language endangerment is no longer just a concern for a small number of dedicated fieldworkers. Attention to the problem has grown within the linguistics community and beyond. As a consequence, it is no longer viewed primarily as a problem of documentation. The broader issue of supporting global cultural diversity has gained attention and there is an intensified focus on how we may actively further the survival of languages. Nowadays, concerned agents include native speakers, activists, government officials, policy makers, funding agents, fieldworkers, and others. This book by Grenoble and Whaley is explicitly said (ix) to be addressed to this entire range of readership. Thus, it seems fair to evaluate it from a wide range of viewpoints, something I return to after a summary.

The first chapter briefly describes the current language situation and issues of terminology, and discusses different ways of assessing language vitality. The authors conclude that 'the one factor that tends to rise above the others is intergenerational transmission: once the children stop learning a language, it is in a precarious state' (13). A final section, entitled 'Why revitalization', cites different answers to this question from the literature: languages are cultural treasures, diversity stimulates innovative thinking, and languages are crucial to the support of minority rights. The authors themselves do not highlight any particular answer, but they do point out that whatever the motivation is, language revitalization can only be successful if it is community-driven.

The second chapter offers an overview of the various factors that affect language endangerment. It develops an analytical framework for characterizing any individual situation. A distinction is made between macrovariables, which include factors such as the global economy or national language and education policies, and microvariables such as language attitudes, religion, literacy, human resources in the communities (i.e. people and their skills), and financial resources. A short case study of Cornish illustrates how many of the factors may interact. The chapter concludes with a forceful recommendation for assessing needs and resources before embarking on any attempt to revitalize a language and equally strong encouragement to be realistic about the goals that can be achieved.

Ch. 3 discusses different types of revitalization programs. One type is the total immersion approach, exemplified by the Māori 'language nests'. Since the 1980s, Māori elders have been coming to preschools to speak Māori with children. This was followed up by schools where students receive all instruction in Māori. Similar programs have been established for Hawaiian and Mohawk. The learners involved in total immersion may be children or adults. G&W discuss advantages and disadvantages with regard to either choice of target generation but do not take a stance on which choice is to be preferred when both are possible. Partial immersion, where the local language is only used for some instruction, is encountered more frequently but works less well. A third type is the master-apprentice programs developed in 1992 in California. Here, an elder who still speaks the language is paired with a learner and the teaching takes place entirely through the oral medium and in real-life situations. The organizers, who have a linguistic background, define the goals and expectations and provide the master with some introduction to basic pedagogical methods. In addition to revitalization proper, there are also initiatives to revive languages that are no longer spoken. G&W suggest the term 'language reclamation' for this kind of situation. While the development of modern Hebrew is the most famous case of language reclamation, it is also atypical. The authors therefore go more into detail in the description of how the very incompletely documented Kaurna language of the Adelaide region of Australia has gone from not having any speakers to being used for songs, short speeches, greetings, and the coining of names of places and institutions. [End Page 883]

Ch. 4 presents contrasting case studies of revitalization programs. The languages discussed include Evenki (Russian Federation...


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