In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Revitalization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Reference Resources
  • Conferences
  • Journals and Series
  • In the Media
  • History
  • Discourse and Debate
  • Technology and Media
  • The Problem and Opportunity of Formal Education

Linguistics Language Revitalization
Andrea Wilhelm
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0091


Language revitalization is a fairly recent subfield of linguistics that is concerned with halting and reversing the extinction of languages. Language extinction has increased rapidly in the last one hundred years, and occurs now at a staggering rate. It is estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of the world’s six thousand to seven thousand languages will no longer be spoken by the end of this century. Linguists encounter more and more speakers and communities who are struggling for the survival their languages. In response to the global crisis and to a grassroots movement, the discipline of linguistics is shifting from treating languages as an object of study to engaging in efforts to save languages. This includes (a) assessing the situation of individual languages, (b) understanding the complex causes of language decline and death, (c) engaging in public and political advocacy, (d) documenting languages, and, most important, (e) working directly with members of communities whose languages are threatened, supporting their efforts to save or revive these languages. Since language revitalization is an emerging field, its theoretical foundations as well as its models of practice are still developing. Many publications are devoted to the fundamental task of increasing the knowledge base by reporting on revitalization projects on specific languages, often in specific communities. Revitalization efforts take a variety of forms; the best known are perhaps the language nests pioneered in New Zealand and Hawaii, various forms of bilingual education (in Europe and elsewhere), and political movements, such as the modern revival of Hebrew or Basque and the language legislation of Quebec, Canada. These examples reveal that language revitalization is not only an applied field, but also a very interdisciplinary one. Mainstream linguistic training is only a partial preparation; knowledge of sociolinguistics, first and second language acquisition, language teaching (and education more generally), and community development are also essential. The theoretical understanding of language endangerment, which is fundamental to successful revitalization, is equally interdisciplinary. The threat to languages often goes hand in hand with threatened communities, cultures, and, particularly in the case of small indigenous languages, natural environments. The theoretical literature of language revitalization draws heavily on sociolinguistics, anthropology, history, sociology, education, and ecology.

General Overviews

A good number of short overviews are now available on the topic of language revitalization, all of them accessible to a nonlinguistic audience. They include Hinton 2011 and Romaine 2007. Romaine 2007 is an overview of current thinking on language revitalization. It discusses the current status of the world’s languages, factors threatening languages, and strategies of language revitalization. Taking an ecological approach, Romaine 2007 argues that the best way to save a language is to protect the community in which the language is spoken. Hinton 2011 is an overview of the practice of language revitalization and includes many examples of diverse revitalization projects. This article will be of most immediate use—and inspiration—to language activists. Also useful is Baker 2011, a chapter in a textbook on bilingualism and aimed primarily at educators and decision makers. It discusses revitalization in terms of intervention, that is, language planning, and surveys sociolinguistic tools and theories used in revitalization efforts. A more technical, comprehensive overview geared primarily at linguists can be found in chapter 11 of Tsunoda 2005. Book-length treatments of language revitalization are the seminal Hinton and Hale 2001 and Grenoble and Whaley 2006. Both give excellent overviews of the field, covering both the theoretical and the practical and containing many examples. To date no textbooks are dedicated to language revitalization. The topic of language revitalization is by now also included in many handbooks and other reference works in linguistics, education/language teaching, bilingualism, ethnicity, and so on. For example, Hinton 2011 is just one of several chapters in Austin and Sallabank 2011 in which responses to language endangerment are discussed.

  • Austin, Peter K., and Julia Sallabank, eds. 2011. The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975981

    A major section of this edited volume is devoted to the topic of “responses” to language endangerment. The articles in this section deal with language revitalization in general and several highly relevant subtopics, such as speakers and communities, orthography development, and language policy.

  • Baker, Colin. 2011. Endangered languages: Planning and revitalization. In Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 5th ed. Edited by Colin Baker, 40–63. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    A thorough overview from the perspective of sociolinguistics and language planning.

  • Grenoble, Lenore A., and Lindsay J. Whaley. 2006. Saving languages: An introduction to language revitalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A very systematic treatment of language revitalization written for lay and academic readers. It introduces all the major topics (such as revitalization models, assessment, literacy) and contains many examples, including four case studies. A very practical chapter, “Creating a Language Program,” concludes the book.

  • Hinton, Leanne. 2011. Revitalization of endangered languages. In The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Edited by Peter K. Austin, and Julia Sallabank, 291–311. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975981

    Written by one of the best-known practitioners of language revitalization, this article offers a very useful overview of the various models of revitalization and thesituations for which they might be appropriate.

  • Hinton, Leanne, and Kenneth Hale, eds. 2001. The green book of language revitalization in practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Together with Grenoble and Whaley 2006, the best resource on language revitalization. After a general introduction, each section discusses one aspect of language revitalization by presenting an overview article followed by one or more case studies, usually written from a perspective of firsthand experience.

  • Romaine, Suzanne. 2007. Preserving endangered languages. Language and Linguistics Compass 1.1–2: 115–132.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00004.x

    A good introduction to language endangerment and revitalization from an ecological perspective.

  • Tsunoda, Tasaku. 2005. Language endangerment and language revitalization. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Chapter 11 of this scholarly introduction discusses language revitalization. It is comprehensive and very well referenced. Other parts of the book are also relevant, for example, the chapter on the role and ethics of researchers.

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