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

  • Introduction
  • The History of Language Nests
  • Language Nests in the Context of Language Conservation
  • Definitions and Types of Language Nests
  • Current State of Language Nests
  • Language Acquisition in the Context of Language Nests
  • Resources for Funding
  • Publications on Case Studies of Individual Language Nests
  • Social Impact

Linguistics Language Nests
Eve Okura Koller, Gabriela Amaller, Kenedi Cooper
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0293


Language nests are one of the most crucial methods of language revitalization. The conservation and reclamation of endangered and/or oppressed languages is a critical scientific and ethical endeavor. Intergenerational transmission is the most significant factor in determining the endangerment (or conversely, the vitality) of a language, and language nests are the method of revitalization that most directly addresses the challenge of creating a new generation of first language speakers, or language users in the case of sign languages. Language nests bring together the methods and theories of both language revitalization and child language acquisition. In 1998 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, stating that people have a right to use their language both in public and in private and to preserve their culture and language. The first recorded early childhood language immersion programs of non-endangered languages were French immersion classes for young children in Quebec, Canada, in the 1960s. Sāmoan language nests in New Zealand were later developed for Sāmoan heritage speaking children in New Zealand. This method was then adopted by Māori speakers to revitalize the Māori language. Unlike Sāmoan heritage speakers in New Zealand, the Māori were not diaspora in the traditional sense of having left their homeland. However, as a result of language encroachment, many Indigenous people have become linguistic diaspora within their own homeland, in the sense that their language has become displaced from many of its prior domains of use. Indigenous people who do not speak their ancestral language and whose languages are severely endangered have explained that a challenge they face is that there are no locations learners of an endangered language can travel to where they can be completely immersed in the target language in a place where everyone speaks it fluently, where it is used in every domain. This is unique from other language situations, and unlike learners of more widely spoken languages like Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, or Arabic, who can participate in an immersive study abroad experience after taking classes. The language nest seeks to create a reservoir of an immersive experience, which has historically fed into the development of immersion schools, universities, and even graduate programs. Those who graduate from the immersive education, especially higher education, often deliberately and consciously introduce or re-introduce the language to ever increasing domains. The accelerated rate of language loss in the current and recent century requires these new approaches to language maintenance and language reclamation.

The History of Language Nests

Language endangerment affects every major region of the world, and every endangered language has a unique cultural history. Learning the history of a specific Indigenous community assists in understanding how to best develop and adapt revitalization methods for each unique language situation. Māori speakers in New Zealand first used the language nest model as a revitalization method. The term “language nest” is a calque from the Māori Te Kōhanga Reo in Māori (where te is the definite article, kōhanga means nest, and reo means language). For more information, see Fishman 1991, Grenoble and Whaley 2006, and King 2001. Utumapu 1998 describes the language nest model as having originated from heritage language programs of Samoan speaking diaspora communities in New Zealand. Native Hawaiians adopted the language nest model from Māori speakers, creating the program known as ʻAha Pūnana Leo (see Grenoble and Whaley 2006, Warner 2001, and Wilson and Kamanā 2008). The success of Te Kōhanga Reo and ʻAha Pūnana Leo have spurred the global spread of the language nest model among Indigenous communities, including among Saami speakers in Finland (see Olthuis, et al. 2013).

  • Fishman, Joshua. 1991. Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon, UK, and Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters. Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a foundational book on RLS (reversing language shift) that analyzes the success of language revitalization programs. It provides background information on endangered languages, including ones for which communities have developed language nest programs, and it discusses theoretical underpinnings upon which subsequent language endangerment scales have been established.

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

    This volume contains language revitalization case studies, including Māori and Hawaiian. It analyzes these languages’ revitalization history from the perspective of linguistics and discusses their language nest programs, Te Kōhanga Reo and ‘Aha Pūnana Leo. The author’s intended audience are readers from various backgrounds who want to learn more about small language communities.

  • King, Jeannette. 2001. Te kōhanga reo: Mãori language revitalization. In The green book of language revitalization in practice. Edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale, 119–128. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-012349353-8/50017-0

    This chapter reviews a broad range of interests that relate to the revitalization of the Māori language and the Te Kōhanga Reo language nest programs. The section “Historical Background” creates a timeline of speaker attitudes and cultural perceptions of the language.

  • Olthuis, Marja L., Suvi Kivelä, and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. 2013. Revitalizing Indigenous languages: How to recreate a lost generation. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    DOI: 10.21832/9781847698896

    This book documents the cultural and language revitalization of the Aanaar (Inari) Saami people in Finland through their Complementary Aanaar Saami Language Education (CASLE) program. It details how the Saami people have systematically created language nests and other programs from the beginning of their revitalization efforts.

  • Utumapu, Tafili Leahnora Peseta. 1998. O le poutu: Women’s roles and Samoan language nests. PhD diss., Univ. of Auckland.

    This dissertation states that the template for modern immersion language nests originated among the Samoan people in New Zealand who began early childhood Samoan heritage language programs.

  • Warner, Sam L. No’eau. 2001. The movement to revitalize Hawaiian language and culture. In The green book of language revitalization in practice. Edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale, 133–144. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-012349353-8/50019-4

    Warner examines the sociohistorical context of the Hawaiian language. It also discusses early events in revitalizing the language and the difficulties faced in developing programs.

  • Wilson, William H., and Kauanoe Kamanā. 2008. Mai loko mai o ka ‘iʻini: Proceeding from a dream. The ‘Aha Pūnana Leo connection in Hawaiian language revitalization. In The green book of language revitalization in practice. Edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale, 147–176. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    This chapter contains an overview of Hawaiian language revitalization and the ‘Aha Pūnana Leo organization, providing a brief account of how the Hawaiian language became part of the educational domain during early revitalization efforts.

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