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Review of  Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?

Reviewer: Kendall (Ken) Don Decker
Book Title: Can Threatened Languages Be Saved?
Book Author: Joshua A Fishman
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 12.927

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Fishman, Joshua A., ed. (2000) Can Threatened Languages Be
Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century
Perspective. Multilingual Matters Ltd., xi, 503 pp., ISBN

Ken Decker, SIL International

Description: Joshua Fishman has gathered together an impressive collection
of studies to revisit and develop many of the issues he introduced in his
1991 book "Reversing Language Shift". For a listing of contributors and
chapter titles see
In introductory chapters Fishman reviews this field of study and discusses
the difficulties which confront those who attempt language shift reversal.
Practical case studies are then presented from five continents. In
conclusion, the issues are reviewed and Fishman evaluates progress in the
field and proposes further efforts.

Fishman notes that the recent groundswell of interest in endangered
languages and the rights of indigenous peoples contributes to a hope for
reversing language shift (RLS). However, as good as things may seem for
endangered language groups, there are also many developments which further
endanger and complicate efforts to reverse language shift. Fishman also
addresses some arguments against RLS. He contends that the loss of a
language diminishes language and cultural diversification. He explains
that languages fulfill various functions for the needs and identity of a
community, and another language cannot equally fulfill the functions. He
asserts that RLS is not anti-modern, it is not an attempt to isolate
minority groups but to empower weaker communities in the decisions that
affect their future. (For ease of discussion the following notations have
been accepted: Xmen, or Xian, designating the minority group and Xish for
the language; and Ymen, or Yian, for the dominant group and Yish for their

These concepts of function and power are further discussed in their effect
as the cause of shift in the first place, and how proponents of RLS might
deal with the pressures for shift. When there is contact with neighboring
languages, these functions are likely to change, and probably with the
stronger (Yish) language engaging more functions. Fishman contends that
any effort to assist in RLS must address this functional diversification
of languages. He maintains that due to the inevitability of Yish serving
some functions, there must be a sharing of power and control over which
functions will be assigned to which language. It is the conflict over this
control which makes RLS so difficult.

With this introduction, 17 case studies are presented from around the
globe. 12 of these studies (Navajo, New York Puerto Rican Spanish, New
York Yiddish, Quebec French, Irish, Frisian, Basque, Catalan, Hebrew,
Australian immigrant and indigenous languages, and Maori) are updates on
research presented in "Reversing Language Shift" (1991). The other five
studies (Otomi of Mexico, Quechua of South America, Oko of Nigeria,
Andamanese) are new. Within each of the case studies is an evaluation of
the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) which Fishman
introduced in the previous volume. I will only describe three of the case
studies here, chosen for the variation in their situations.

The Navajo are the largest Native American group in the United States, a
country with strong expectations of English dominance. In Fishman 1991,
Navajo was presented as a language in great danger. This provides an
excellent case study since there are decades of research and there has
been significant effort towards RLS. In this present volume, a thorough
analysis is given of the domains of language usage and factors relevant to
the GIDS. While there are many areas in which there is improvement in
environment for RLS, there continues to be shift in one critical area:
"the transmission of the language from one generation to the next inside
the family, neighborhood, and community contexts." As Fishman states it
(p. 14) - parents must teach the language to their children as a first
language. Lee and McLaughlin conclude with their recommendations for the

In the earlier volume, Fishman (1991)presented Catalan as a success story,
having passed through the "dangerous sections of the difficult path" of
RLS. The Catalan example is quite different from Navajo as it has a long
history of political and literary strength. Overt political efforts to
marginalize Catalan lasted for only 40 years. While those 40 years of
oppression had their damaging effects on the vitality of the language,
there were no major barriers to the restoration of most functions of the
language when the restrictions were removed. Fishman maintained that as
good as things may seem for Catalan, there were still very real RLS issues
to be considered. While the author of this new study, Strubell, agrees
with Fishman's evaluation of Catalan as stage 1 in the GIDS scale,
elsewhere in the text he sounds less sanguine. Strubell's approach in his
chapter is not so much to talk about the vitality of Catalan or RLS
activities there, but to evaluate some of the positions on RLS taken by
Fishman in his first volume. While he tends to agree with positions put
forward by Fishman, he makes frequent recommendations for further research
to improve the theories and understanding of the processes involved in
language shift. On the topic of Catalan vitality he quotes Prats (1990) as
saying that "To defy history, leading people to believe that we shall be
the first to maintain the balanced coexistence of two languages in a given
territory, is an error which will be paid for dearly." And then he
proceeds to question if the RLS "success" described by Fishman (1991) has
really been achieved; that would be a monolingual society. While there are
greater language choice options available, Prats et al (1990) contend that
bilingualism is not a stable situation, that Spanish is more dominant, and
contact is "disastrous for Catalan". This would only seem to underline
Fishman's statement in an earlier section (p. 12) that RLS "requires
making constant and repeated efforts."

A new, and welcome, study, not covered in the previous volume, concerns
the Oko language of Nigeria. I say 'welcome' because it involves a
situation I find interesting and valuable: a non-western language in a
country that is highly multilingual. The author, E. Adegbija, presents an
overview of the sociolinguistic situation of the Oko-speaking community
and the other languages which compete for currency. There are no overt RLS
efforts being made in the community. The author describes the vitality, or
more specifically the endangerment, of Oko relative to the stages of the
GIDS. Throughout this report the author repeatedly identifies English, and
to some degree Yoruba, as languages with great prestige for the upward
social and economic mobility they afford. Of greatest concern is that Oko,
as well as many African languages, is primarily defined at Stage 6;
children are not learning Oko in many homes. The author then discusses
cultural, linguistic, and politically-oriented strategies for addressing
RLS in the home. The chapter concludes with five further suggested
strategies that could be a part of RLS for endangered languages in Africa.

Fishman concludes with his own evaluation of the studies presented and the
issues that continue to drive RLS efforts. He confronts attitudes against
RLS efforts and evaluates how the GIDS has been used and could be
improved. I especially appreciate his perspective that many RLSers
themselves have difficulty articulating the value of RLS efforts. His
response is clear, "The struggle for RLS is a struggle for a more humane
humanity all over the world." And finally, in answer to the question in
the title, "Can threatened languages be saved?" Fishman replies with an
"uncertain" 'yes', and stresses that it must be done through careful,
focused strategies.

Evaluation: I share in the concerns for endangered languages, and the
values of those who are concerned about rights of communities to maintain
their language. It is true that many groups feel that they have no choice,
and their rights need to be defended. But advocates of these fields of
study seem to forget that not all cultures consider language to be an
integral part of their identity, nor do they feel that they lose anything
in language shift. Therefore, when Krauss (1992) points out that hundreds
of Native American languages are dying, that says nothing to me about
whether it is a positive or negative shift for those people. It may be a
loss to the academic linguistic community, but our focus should stick with
the "democratic belief in the inherent right of all peoples to
self-determination and self-emancipation." (Lee and McLaughlin, this
volume p. 41) Thus, I feel the shrill voice of some extreme activists
decrying the "doom" and "death" of most languages, only seems to hurt the
cause of concern for groups which want to engage in RLS.

That said, Fishman has presented an excellent manual for guiding those who
would engage in RLS activities. While being honest concerning the great
hurdles which are to be overcome, Fishman, and the contributing authors,
give hope that language shift can be reversed. The case studies do much
more than simply apply Fishman's earlier model to present day situations.
The theories are evaluated from quite different situations and other
theories are presented.

The balance of concerns for all languages involved in any multilingual
situation can become very problematic. Fishman points out that most
languages cannot consider their positions to be completely secure. This
was highlighted in the Catalan situation. The RLS efforts in Catalonia
seem to be more an issue of Catalan hegemony over Spanish-speaking
immigrants to the region. Should another group start RLS activities among
the Spanish-speaking immigrants to Catalonia? If political policy requires
bilingualism, and if bilingualism is never stable, one of the languages
will inevitably be less equal. Such a situation might end up in a war over
who will influence who. And in fact, Strubell mentions (p. 273) some of
the present political tension in Spain.

I think the assertion in the Catalan study of inherent instability of
bilingual situations, and a goal of monolingualism should be questioned.
There has been much written on the stability of diglossic situations. Much
of what Fishman seems to say is based on the value of stable bilingualism,
including bilingualism of Yians in Xish. However, I am confused by
Fishman's assertion (p. 465) that RLS cannot depend on Yish support, but
elsewhere (including the GIDS) he says that Yish support is required.
Fishman, and the various case studies, frequently point to the problem
that the dominant language community holds power over the endangered
language. Fishman states that RLS efforts depend on the dominant language
to help, or at least permit, RLS efforts in Xish to enable success. But I
didn't see any efforts in any of the case studies to educate Xians to see
and embrace the benefits of bilingualism.

Fishman confesses (p. 469) that he had limited knowledge of "intra-Stage 6
[GIDS] socio-functional differentiation in connection with
inter-generational mother tongue transmission" and requests
recommendations for further research. My 1992 Masters thesis (Decker 1992)
explored the possibility of developing a quantifiable method of measuring
language vitality. My approach was to look for evidence of any factors
that were significant to the maintenance of the language. I used Giles,
Bourhis, and Taylor's (1977) taxonomy of variables affecting
ethnolinguistic vitality. (Bourhis, himself a contributor to this volume
on French in Quebec, also uses this taxonomy.) In light of the importance
of transmission of the language in the intimate environments of the home
and neighborhood, I think that there is a great relevance to studying key
variables that motivate people to maintain their language, and then focus
RLS efforts on reinforcing those factors.

Lee and McLaughlin, writers of the Navajo study, make the plea that "Our
work must not only serve as an incitement for discourse but also as an
incitement to action." I know that discussion concerning dying languages
has led some universities to encourage thesis and dissertation materials
to focus on documentation of these languages, rather than only theoretical
topics. Maybe it is time for a scholarly recognition of those who conduct
activities which promote RLS and language maintenance of minority
languages, like universities which grant degrees for 'life

I take a small issue with the implication that Fishman, and the scholars
associated with this volume, are the first and few to address the needs of
endangered language groups; SIL International has been working for over
seven decades in more than 1500 language groups, many of which would be
considered as endangered languages. Many of these languages have been
provided with the tools and support necessary for RLS.


Decker, Kendall D. (1992) Factors Affecting Language Maintenance and Shift
in Chitral District, Pakistan. University of Texas at Arlington:
Unpublished thesis.

Fishman, Joshua A. (1991) Reversing Language Shift; Theoretical and
Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened languages. Cleavedon:
Multilingual Matters.

Giles, H., Bourhis, R.Y. and Taylor, D. (1977) Towards a theory of
language in ethnic group relations. In H. Giles (ed.) Language, Ethnicity
and Intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.

Krauss, M. (1992) The world's languages in crisis. Language 68, 6-10.

Prats, M. (1990) Reflexió ignasiana sobre la normalització
lingüística. In M. Prats, A. Rafanell and A. Rossich (eds)
El futur de la llengua catalana (pp. 9-28). Barcelona: Empúries.

Prats, M., Rafanell A. and Rossich A. (1990) En l'esperança, contra
l'esperança. In M. Prats, A. Rafanell and A. Rossich (eds) El futur
de la llengua catalana (pp. 39-83). Barcelona: Empúries.

Ken Decker has conducted sociolinguistic studies in Northern Pakistan and
the Caribbean. His Masters thesis attempted to develop a method of
measuring language vitality. He has been involved in language development
and endangered languages for nearly fifteen years.


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