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FEL XIV. Reversing Language Shift: How to Re-awaken a Language Tradition

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Languages across the world are currently disappearing at an unprecedented rate with the possibility of losing approximately half during this century and with around two dying every month. A quarter of the world’s languages are currently spoken by less than a thousand people while on the other hand those considered to be majority languages only account for approximately 1.5% of the total.

With this alarming prospect, "Reversing Language Shift" (a term originally attributed to Joshua Fishman) is a process of linguistic revitalisation which currently demands the immediate attention of academics, language planners and politicians throughout the world. The problem has for some years engaged the attention of some major international organisations including that of UNESCO. Governments in various countries, such as those in the Celtic regions, also perceive language vitality as being symbolic of national and cultural identity and are, consequently, attempting a reversal of language shift by actively increasing the number of speakers of their respective languages.

Census statistics in Wales confirm such an increase, especially amongst the younger generation, which is generally attributed, like the language revival in Estonia, to the education system. There is greater parental demand for Welsh-medium education, including from non-Welsh-speaking parents. Although academic studies question the validity of such statistics in terms of language fluency and use, efforts to achieve the Welsh Assembly’s long-term goal of creating a "bilingual Wales" are also reflected in political demands for increased legislative powers and autonomy with regard to linguistic issues and improved status. The decision to establish a Welsh-medium federal university is also an important recent development. However, due to constant in-migration expected to reach a very significant level in the next decade, there continues to be a falling density of Welsh-speakers in traditional heartlands.

In Ireland, despite being the first official language, the protection of Irish has been achieved by means of establishing the Gaeltacht and what may be described as a territorial diglossic approach to language preservation. Nevertheless, in view of various factors currently threatening the language even in those areas, including the in-migration of non-Irish-speakers, the government has recently adopted a positive stance to address the issue by formulating a twenty-year strategy for language revival.

The erosion of cultural diversity which goes hand in hand with language death, along with the unceasing and unremitting trend towards globalisation, can only lead to an increasingly reduced level in the richness of colour currently provided by the "language garden" of the world and consequently, to an inevitable impoverishment in the quality of human life and experience.

To what extent, therefore, can the present trend be halted and what is the current level of political will and awareness at local, national and international levels which can be mobilised to address this issue? Does the protection and conservation of languages deserve the same level of political intervention as the current protection afforded to an endangered animal species, or do we subscribe to the Darwinian inevitability of "natural selection"? To what extent is a more proactive preservationist or conservationist approach feasible in terms of achieving world-wide political intervention when bilingualism and multilingualism are only promoted educationally in terms of the social and economic benefits conferred by the acquisition of one of a very small number of high status languages?

It has been said that the lack of the will to stop shrinking is an intrinsic characteristic of a shrinking language minority and that any attempt to save such a community must begin by arousing in them the will to save themselves. Are languages, therefore, murdered or do they commit suicide?

Institutional support, political status and demography are recognised as factors which play a crucial role in the maintenance of a language’s ethnolinguistic vitality. Language revitalisation requires the collaboration of a wide range of linguistic, sociolinguistic and political expertise, including that of educationists and language planners, in order to engage in vital aspects such as corpus planning, acquisition planning and status planning. However, what evidence is there that established academic frameworks which address this issue have a realistic and feasible level of practical application by means of direct intervention in the daily language usage of ordinary people? Within a few hundred years, is the prospect of a world with only one language an ever-increasing possibility?

- Dr Hywel Glyn Lewis, School of Welsh and Bilingualism Studies, University of Wales: Trinity Saint David

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