Language Successfully Revived?

The field of language revitalization is a new one, and nobody knows to what extent it will be possible to save the huge number of endangered languages we have today. Even whether a language can be brought back from the brink has been an unknown.

Although Hebrew was revitalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it had special religious uses still in place and other unique circumstances that facilitated its rebirth.

The language nest programs in Aotearoa (New Zealand) developed by the Māori under the name Kōhanga Reo and then the Hawaiians under the name Pūnana Leo have been hailed as exemplar models for language revitalization programs.

This morning, the Star Advertiser issued an article on Kauanoe Kamana, principal at Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu elementary school in Hilo.

In the article, it says, “Kamana grew up while Hawaiian was considered a dying language…” implying that Hawaiian has emerged from the endangered language category as a living, vibrant language.

While the article goes on to talk about all the work yet ahead for language revitalization, the optimism in the article cannot be denied. Hawaiian is a beacon of hope for language revitalizationists everywhere!

2 Responses to “Language Successfully Revived?”

  1. Frederick Kintanar Says:

    I read somewhere that Hawaiian was not exactly endangered (even at the time before the language nest movement) because it had a vibrant community of native speakers on the privately-owned island of Niihau, some 500 if I recall. They speak a dialect of Hawaiian which is significantly different from the standard on the big island of Hawaii, but they had fluent young speakers which had all but disappeared elsewhere in the islands. I read somewhere else that in recent years the Niihau islanders have to spend part of the year away from their home villages because of water shortages, and I suspect this would have a negative impact on language maintenance. It’s great to hear that Hawaiian in successful in formal education, but I wonder if enough networks of language use are in place to ensure its robust transmission to future generations.

    • wakablogger Says:

      The Wikipedia article on Niihau says that the population was 130 as of 2009, so the language was endangered even taking that island into account.

      Even if there were 500 people on Niihau, however, the language still would have been seriously endangered. The pressures of technology and desire to find a job that requires English can quickly cause a language environment to deteriorate.

      Nobody yet knows what it takes to save a language. Hebrew, Maori and Hawaiian are probably the only examples we have where we can say this has occurred (and only Hebrew is truly no longer endangered). In all three cases, community-building was employed. Maori and Hawaiian in particular have used the language nest concept. I do not know to what extent Hawaiian is used outside the classroom. I imagine it takes a great deal of personal networking and community building to create the sort of language network required for transmission.

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