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Revitalizing Language

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Roughly 20,000 people speak the Marquesan language today, and it is currently listed among the endangered languages of the world.

According to National Geographic (2012), a language dies every 14 days, and half the world's languages are in danger of disappearing (see their ongoing project to document and revitalize languages around the world, Enduring Voices).  

Marquesans are not alone in facing the challenge of how to perpetuate their unique language.  Ethnographic Contributions to the Study of Endangered Languages, a 2011 volume of essays addressing this issue around the world, offers some key lessons compiled from cases around the globe about how to best secure the future of these languages.  Among them are the following points:

On Educational Policies

- Legislation in favor of indigenous languages has little effect on language vitality.
- Language revitalization efforts must extend beyond the language classroom.
- Strong, charismatic leaders who embrace and promote language revitalization enhance community involvement in language promotion.
- Communities with a strong economic base and productive career possibilities for local language speakers are more likely to succeed in reviving local language.
- Local languages are devalued by educational systems requiring the use of English or another dominant language to take exams or gain access to higher education (also known as "gate-keeping").
- Local languages that remain dominant outside the classroom tend to retain their vitality.
- Promoting an ideology of bilingualism has, in some cases, successfully stood up to national visions of monolingualism.
- Development of technology that uses local languages, such as the Tsalagi (Cherokee) computer keyboard, has greatly facilitated use of the language in classrooms and on the internet.
- Those hoping to revitalize, awaken or reinforce local languages must have a deep understanding of local ideologies as well as legal, social and economic conditions if their efforts are to succeed.

On Revitalization 

Revitalization of local language fosters:
- The development of positive images of self, community, and language.

- Increased political coherence, activism and legal action that helps advance group claims to land and social autonomy.

Common Challenges to Revitalization 

- Even in groups committed to language revitalization, divergent ideas and expectations about language learning and use can inhibit the spread of the language beyond the classroom.
- Local languages grounded in an agrarian base must compete with the comparatively high economic utility of regional and world languages.  In the Marquesas, this challenge also relates directly to the connection between islanders and their environment.  In a 2011 article, Gabriele Cablitz suggests addressing this issue by creating broader-scope, multi-media dictionaries that document both language and cultural knowledge.  Her work on this type of project in the Marquesas promises to safeguard local knowledge and expertise for the use of islanders as well as scientists (see "Documenting Cultural Knowledge in Dictionaries of Endangered Languages," International Journal of Lexicography Vol. 24, No. 4). 

The above text draws upon both Ethnographic Contributions to the Study of Endangered Languages as well as the 2013 review of that volume by Judith Maxwell in American Anthropologist Vol. 115, No. 4.