How to Save a Language…

FROM TOTAL EXTINCTION! number of endangered languges by country

I was watching a Youtube feature on Gwich’in, a Native American language from the Na-Dené group, spoken by the Gwich’in tribe of Alaska. But of around three thousand tribe members, only about 560 speak the language fluently, and nearly all of these are over fifty years of age. No young people can speak the tribe’s language anymore. So the elders are trying to save the language by compiling a dictionary and giving language classes to the tribe’s youngsters.

While it’s a nice idea to give classes, if the Gwich’in language is to survive and truly thrive as a living language, children need to learn it from the cradle and not from school. If they’re serious about saving the language, I think they need to set up a scheme where young kids live full-time with their Gwich’in-speaking grandparents and grow up speaking nothing but the Gwich’in language.

Once they have a group of fluent toddlers, they could then set up a playgroup that operates in the Gwich’in language and offer primary education through the medium of the language. They do a similar thing in Wales and it works! Welsh-medium primary schools are called Ysgolion Meithrin and they’re really popular.

Not long ago I heard a BBC radio documentary on the Navajo language where people said they didn’t speak Navajo to their kids because they wanted them to speak good English. This just isn’t how bilingualism works. I spent my teenage years in Wales. The majority of my schoolmates were mother-tongue Welsh speakers and none of these kids had any trouble with English!

In “Welsh Wales” most kids will grow up in homes where Welsh is the dominant language of conversation. So up until school age they wouldn’t have encountered a lot of English, even though English has always been the main language of radio and TV in Wales. If you go to the local shop you’ll see racks of magazines and books, all in English. Any product you buy will have packaging printed in English. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Welsh language food packaging or Welsh instructions when I bought a new camera (or whatever). Traditionally Welsh tends not to be used for technical things, and though Welsh technical terms do exist most people tend to use the English terminology. This phenomenon is known to linguists as code-switching where bilingual people switch languages depending on the topic of conversation. Or, in the case of Welsh, simply use English terminology while continuing to speak Welsh. In a way this means that English tends to be used as a language of work while Welsh is the language of play.

Welsh language classes have only been widespread in Wales since the 1980s, around the same time that S4C television was launched. S4C has done such a good job of promoting the Welsh language that TV executives from across the world come to S4C to see how a successful minority language broadcaster can operate!

Since S4C was set up in the early 1980s, the number of Welsh speakers has risen from 500,000 to about 1,000,000 (in a total population of about 3,000,000). Half of these Welsh speakers are like me, second-language speakers who learned Welsh at school. But the other 500,000 are mother tongue Welsh speakers. This means that over the past 40 years the decline of Welsh has been halted and very slowly the language is building up again. In my opinion the future of a living language comes from its mother tongue users, and this means mothers must pass the language on! (The term “mother” tongue is not accidental. Kids generally do pick up more language from their mother than their father!) The BBC video on Badeshi, below, below, explains that back in the day there were nine or ten Badeshi-speaking families in the village, but many local men married women from outside the area, and so the language declined so much there are now just three old men who can speak it!


Welsh language map of Wales based on 2011 census data.
The pale areas along the Southeast coast (from Swansea to Cardiff and Newport) are the most densely populated areas of Wales


The fight to save the dying Gwich’in language of Alaska (HBO, 6¾ minutes)

Mormon missionary talks about learning the language and integrating with a Navajo-speaking community in the United States (48¾ minutes)

The Basque language isolate from Spain and France (vlog, 14½ minutes)

The Badeshi (Indo-Iranian) language of Northern Pakistan (BBC 1¼ minutes)





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s