The following 6 evaluative factors of language vitality were copied from the UNESCO's Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages' report on Language Vitality and Endangerment, document which was submitted to the International Expert Meeting on [the] UNESCO's Programme [for the] Safeguarding of Endangered Languages (held in Paris in 2003).
The most commonly used factor in evaluating the vitality of a language is whether or not it is being transmitted from one generation to the next (Fishman 1991). Endangerment can be ranked on a continuum from stability to extinction. Even “safe” (below), however, does not guarantee language vitality, because at any time speakers may cease to pass on their language to the next generation. Six degrees of endangerment may be distinguished with regards to Intergenerational Language Transmission:
Safe (5): The language is spoken by all generations. There is no sign of linguistic threat from any other language, and the intergenerational transmission of the language seems uninterrupted.
Stable yet threatened (5-): The language is spoken in most contexts by all generations with unbroken intergenerational transmission, yet multilingualism in the native language and one or more dominant language(s) has usurped certain important communication contexts. Note that multilingualism alone is not necessarily a threat to languages.
Unsafe (4): Most but not all children or families of a particular community speak their language as their first language, but it may be restricted to specific social domains (such as at home where children interact with their parents and grandparents).
Definitively endangered (3): The language is no longer being learned as the mother tongue by children in the home. The youngest speakers are thus of the parental generation. At this stage, parents may still speak their language to their children, but their children do not typically respond in the language.
Severely endangered (2): The language is spoken only by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may still understand the language, they typically do not speak it to their children.
Critically endangered (1): The youngest speakers are in the great-grandparental generation, and the language is not used for everyday interactions. These older people often remember only part of the language but do not use it, since there may not be anyone to speak with.
Extinct (0): There is no one who can speak or remember the language.
It is impossible to provide a valid interpretation of absolute numbers, but a small speech community is always at risk. A small population is much more vulnerable to decimation (e.g. by disease, warfare, or natural disaster) than a larger one. A small language group may also merge with a neighbouring group, losing its own language and culture.
The number of speakers in relation to the total population of a group is a significant indicator of language vitality, where “group” may refer to the ethnic, religious, regional, or national group with which the speaker community identifies. The following scale can be used to appraise degrees of endangerment.
"safe" — all speak the language
"unsafe" — nearly all speak the language
"definitively endangered" — a majority speak the language
"severely endangered" — a minority speak the language
"critically endangered" — very few speak the language
"extinct" — none speak the language
Where, with whom, and the range of topics for which a language is used directly affects whether or not it will be transmitted to the next generation.
Universal use (5): The language of the ethnolinguistic group is the language of interaction, identity, thinking, creativity, and entertainment, and is actively used in all discourse domains for all purposes.
Multilingual parity (4): One or more dominant languages, rather than the language of the ethnolinguistic group, is/are the primary language(s) in most official domains: government, public offices, and educational institutions. The language in question, however, may well continue to be integral to a number of public domains, especially in traditional religious institutions, local stores, and those places where members of the community socialize. The coexistence of the dominant and non-dominant languages results in speakers’ using each language for a different function (diglossia), whereby the non-dominant language is used in informal and home contexts and the dominant language is used in official and public contexts. Speakers may consider the dominant language to be the language of social and economic opportunity. However, older members of the community may continue to use only their own minority language. Note that multilingualism, common throughout the world, does not necessarily lead to language loss.
Dwindling domains (3): The non-dominant language loses ground and, at home, parents begin to use the dominant language in their everyday interactions with their children, and children become semi-speakers of their own language (receptive bilinguals). Parents and older members of the community tend to be productively bilingual in the dominant and indigenous languages: they understand and speak both. Bilingual children may exist in families where the indigenous language is actively used.
Limited or formal domains (2): The non-dominant language is used only in highly formal domains, as especially in ritual and administration. The language may also still be used at the community centre, at festivals, and at ceremonial occasions where these older members of the community have a chance to meet. The limited domain may also include homes where grandparents and other older extended family members reside, and other traditional gathering places of the elderly. Many people can understand the language but cannot speak it.
Highly limited domain (1): The non-dominant language is used in very restricted domains at special occasions, usually by very few individuals in a community, e.g. ritual leaders on ceremonial occasions. Some other individuals may remember at least some of the language (rememberers).
Extinct (0): The language is not spoken at any place at any time.
New areas for language use may emerge as community living conditions change. While some language communities do succeed in expanding their own language into the new domain, most do not. Schools, new work environments, new media, including broadcast media and the Internet, usually serve only to expand the scope and power of the dominant language at the expense of endangered languages. Although no existing domains of the endangered language may be lost, the use of the dominant language in the new domain has mesmerizing power, as with television.
If the communities do not meet the challenges of modernity with their language, it becomes increasingly irrelevant and stigmatized.
The type and use of these new domains will vary according to the local context. One example of the possible use of this criterion is: an endangered language enjoys one new domain, broadcast media, including radio and television, but only for a half-hour a week. Though the availability of these media gives the language a potentially high ranking, the extreme time limitation results in limited exposure to the language, which thus would rank only a 2 or 3. Inevitably, there will be different levels of achievement in different media.
In education, assigning criteria can be based on two dimensions: up to what level, and how broadly across the curriculum, the endangered language is used. An endangered language which is the medium of instruction for all courses and at all levels will rank much higher than an endangered language that is taught only one hour per week.
All new domains, be they in employment, education, or the media, must be considered together when assessing an endangered language community’s response.
"dynamic" — the language is used in all new domains
"robust/active" — the language is used in most new domains
"receptive" — the language is used in many new domains
"coping" — the language is used in some new domains
"minimal" — the language is used in only a few new domains
"inactive" — the language is not used in any new domains
Education in the language is essential for language vitality. There are language communities that maintain strong oral traditions, and some do not wish their language to be written. In other communities, literacy in their language is a source of pride. In general, however, literacy is directly linked with social and economic development. Needed are books and materials on all topics for various ages and language abilities.
Grade: 5 — There is an established orthography, literacy tradition with grammars, dictionaries, texts, literature, and everyday media. Writing in the language is used in administration and education.
Grade: 4 — Written materials exist, and at school, children are developing literacy in the language. Writing in the language is not used in administration.
Grade: 3 — Written materials exist and children may be exposed to the written form at school. Literacy is not promoted through print media.
Grade: 2 — Written materials exist, but they may only be useful for some members of the community; and for others, they may have a symbolic significance. Literacy education in the language is not a part of the school curriculum.
Grade: 1 — A practical orthography is known to the community and some material is being written.
Grade: 0 — No orthography available to the community.
For a list of the Caucasian languages listed in the 2009 edition of the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, please go tothis page.
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