I read about the world’s lop-sided linguistic situation— where handful of big languages (e.g. English, French, Spanish, Arabic, various Chinese languages, etc.) dominate, and how the ones that do not (e.g. Welsh, Breton, Hawaiian, various aboriginal languages of Americas and Australia, etc.) are dying off, with some people and organizations (even governments) to prevent and try to reverse this trend. Do you think it is possible for these small languages to survive in the modern world; or is it enviable that they will just die off, the attractions of the big languages being (like cities) too great. I’ve heard that only one language has really successfully been revived: Hebrew. Is this true? If it is, why is so. If it isn’t, what can be learned from the Hebrew revival that can possibly be applied to other language revivals? Also, how important do you think government policy on language is? What do you think is the best government policy toward language.

—Christopher

Language revival, and people’s thoughts in general about what other people should speak, often go astray for failure to address a huge fact: languages are hard to learn.  It’s a multi-year commitment, best done in childhood (not because children are better at it but because they have the time for it).  And at the community level, it doesn’t really work unless almost the whole community makes that effort.

The irony is that public policy through the 1950s or so was the opposite of today’s concerns: people seemed to be terrified that minorities had their own languages, and did their best to discourage and destroy them.  But languages that survived this now faced a greater threat: modern communications and mobility.  Learning the national language becomes is the easiest thing to do, and once the younger generation isn’t taught the minority language any more, it’s likely to die out.

You’re right that Hebrew is the one clear case of language revival.  However, it had two great advantages that most other attempts lack:

  1. There was a large population with a good non-native understanding of the language.  There was thus less trouble finding adults to jump-start educating the kids.
  2. It became the language of a state, and thus something people had to learn.  You’re not soon going to see this happening with Hawai’ian or Cherokee.

That’s not to say it can’t be done.  Many people are trying, with anything from Cornish to Ainu to Amerindian languages.  It’s just that token efforts (naming it “official”, sprinkling a few words around,  having a half-hour class once a week) won’t do the trick.

Modern communications offers advantages, too: activists and language learners can easily connect up; recordings make it easier to share the spoken language; desktop or web publishing is easier and cheaper than print.

Governments can help by e.g. funding immersion schools and production of cultural material.  Sometimes unexpected things help: e.g. the Peruvian government required a fraction of Peruvian content on the radio, which led to a lot of exposure of Quechua songs.  People respond to cultural content much more readily than government decrees!

As to how successful efforts have been, I found this interesting discussion from people who know more about it than I do:

Language Hat: Reviving Passamaquoddy

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