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How to Begin an Indigenous Language Revitalization Initiative

Adapted from The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001).

Language revitalization should be a collaborative effort that involves dedication by First Nations community members. Projects should be initiated by people who are interested in or active in the revitalization of a First Nations' language. One person who is dedicated to the cause can make a great difference, but so much more can be achieved once the support of the community is gained.

What can one person or a few people do to begin?

  • Find out what documentation exists about the language.
  • Get to know living fluent speakers.
  • Learn the language: learn as much as possible from the resources available if you are not already a speaker.
  • Develop learning materials that others can use to learn the language themselves.
  • Try to develop community interest through meetings or language gatherings.
  • Incorporate the assistance of a linguist to document the language, help with the interpretation of existing documents you have found, or develop learning materials.
  • You may gain community support later, so keep going! Prime movers and shakers can produce something of value that future generations may appreciate later in time.

Determining your Language Situation

Your language planning goals will depend on the situation your language finds itself in. Consider the following questions to determine what situation you are in.

  • How large is your speech community?
  • Are there still native speakers (people who learned the language as their first language)?
  • What is the age of the youngest speakers?
  • Are the speakers or potential learners geographically together, or scattered?
  • What level of political power do the speakers or potential learners have?
  • Has your nation come to see this language as the nation’s language or are the speakers a tiny minority in a multilingual nation?
  • Is the language well documented?
  • Does the language have a long history of writing?
  • What kinds of teaching and learning resources are available?
  • Are there trained language teachers who can teach the language?
  • Are there college or university courses available where the language can be learned?
  • What kind of funding resources are available for language projects? (Government / First Nations' sources)
  • What is the level of desire for language revitalization on the part of the community? 

Stages of Language Planning

 Adapted from The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, edited by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001).

The order of these stages should not be considered rigid: all the stages should be reviewed continuously and added to or revised as necessary. Language planning should be viewed as a continuous process, without a final stopping point.

Stage 1: The Introductory Stage

 In this stage, highly motivated people initiate activities, recruit volunteers, and seek community involvement. Committees may be formed, or community meetings held.

Stage 2: Goal Setting

Ask yourself what you want to accomplish: Is your overall goal to restore your language as the main language of communication in your community? To develop new fluent speakers? To document or archive your language? Your goals may be lofty or small. If they are lofty, you will need to develop short-term goals to help you reach your larger long-term goals.

Goal setting really has a place in various stages of language planning. General and long-term goals might be set quite early in the planning process, but specific short-term goals might be set later, after research and setting language policy. You may have to adapt your goals when you find out what your resources are.

Stage 3: Preplanning and Research

 This is the stage where you survey your community, discover your resources, research your language, and find out what other language revitalization programs are doing.

An important step in language planning is a community language survey. This type of survey can help you to:

  • Understand the attitudes of all community members towards their language, and to language revitalization.
  • Identify individuals who are interested in participating in the revitalization process.
  • Find out what kinds of language projects community members would like to see implemented.
  • Determine the degree of language knowledge and usage in the community. (For example, how many fluent speakers there are, how old they are, and how well they know the language).

This stage also includes finding out whom and what you have available to help you in planning and implementing a language revitalization program, and what constraints you will have to work with. Consider the following resources:

  • Human Resources: Speakers of the language (your most important resource!), community members who are learning or teaching the language, language advocates such as your Band Council or Tribal Council, people with useful skills for language projects (teachers, artists, grant writers, computer experts, etc.), and outside experts like linguists, anthropologists, or education consultants who have worked with your community.
  • Cultural Resources: What active traditions, ceremonies, and native skills are present in your community? These can be extremely important resources for language revitalization efforts.
  • Documentation Resources: What linguistic materials and publications are available about your language? What classroom materials, books, curricula, websites, CDs, tape or video recordings, etc. have already been developed? You may also want to look for relevant resources on language teaching theory and methodology.
  • Model Programs Elsewhere: Although your community's language revitalization program will be unique, visiting other language programs or communicating with people who work on them can be helpful and inspirational.
  • Institutional Resources: Is your language taught at a post-secondary institution? Even if it is not, educational and research institutions may be able to help you in other ways. There may be important archives that have material that could be of use to your community. You may be able to contact consultants of various sorts, and/or get help with training or developing materials. As a starting point, try the Canadian Linguistic Association's list of linguists.
  • Equipment and Supply Resources: Consider what is available for your language efforts in terms of equipment and supplies. Computers and software? Tape recording or video equipment?
  • Funding Sources: Consider what foundations and granting agencies are available to fund your language projects. Are there funding sources available within your community?

As you preplan for language development, also consider your constraints. Constraints are not necessarily bad things, just parameters you may need to be aware of as you design your language program. For example, in 1998, Hopi language planners determined that Hopi villages wanted to design their own language programs to preserve their autonomy. The language planners acknowledged this and planned village-specific programs that preserved dialect differences, rather than a coordinated language program for the whole nation.

Stage 4: Needs Assessment

 Once you know what you have in the way of resources, you will also know what you need. Do you need funding? How much? Do you need to bring in consultants? Do you need to train speakers to teach the language, or help current teachers to learn the language? What kind of equipment and how much space will you need for your project?

Stage 5: Policy Formulation

 A language policy consists of a set of statements and mandates about language, based on the philosophy and ideology of the language community. A language policy statement does not have to be a part of language planning, and it does not need to be a formal document, but it may be. Depending on the situation in your community, it might be important to develop a formal language policy that can be presented for endorsement to a Band Council, Tribal Council, school board, or other governing body.

A language policy statement could contain some or all of the following sections, among others:

  • A general mission statement about language or language-related issues.
  • A statement about the philosophy and value of the local language.
  • A statement declaring the official language(s) of the community.
  • Information on the roles and authority of local governing or policy-setting bodies, community members, and committees.
  • A list of goals for language development, in order of priority.
  • Statements on policies about writing systems and literacy. (Such as designating an official writing system.)
  • Statements about intellectual property rights, copyright, etc.
  • Statements about social, cultural, religious, situational and political factors that may affect language programs. (Such as when traditional stories can be told, or when it is appropriate for sacred songs to be sung.)

Stage 6: Goal Reassessment, and Developing Strategies and Methods to Reach your Goals

 By this stage, you should be well informed about community goals, resources, needs, and policies. Now it is time to take a more detailed look at your goals, along with strategies, methods, and a timeline for reaching those goals. At this stage, you will design specific projects, adopt methodologies, and decide on funding strategies and training methods. Training seminars and proposal writing may take place during this stage.

Stage 7: Implementation

 Now the program begins! Whatever you have planned now takes place. Materials, reference books, and curricula are developed. Archives grow. Teaching happens. The community is doing the real work of language revitalization.

Stage 8: Evaluation

 The people involved in language revitalization must evaluate the progress and effectiveness of their programs regularly. Whatever the language community is doing, is it working? Evaluation may include assessment of:

  • learners’ language proficiency
  • the amount and quality of materials developed
  • the extent that target groups of people (elders, children, etc.) are involved.

Evaluation may take place informally, or it may involve more formal processes such as administering tests to students.

Stage 9: Replanning

 Evaluation of your language programs leads back to planning. How should the program be modified to solve any problems that were identified in the Evaluation stage? If great successes were identified in the Evaluation stage, does it mean the community is ready to implement a more advanced goal? Replanning will take place constantly once a language program is underway.


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