Review: The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice

In the early 1990s, UNESCO funded the development of a database called the Red Book on Endangered Laguages. The electronic Red Book provides basic information about languages that are no longer spoken or are likely not to be spoken natively in the next century. The reasons for the loss of these languages are manifold. In some cases, war or disease have eliminated the speakers. More often, the vitality of a language has been sapped by processes of colonization, or in a related vein, by cultural shifts brought on by modernization and development. In fact, short of nearly unimaginable changes in economic, political, and social structures around the globe, there is little reason to suspect that many of the languages listed in the Red Book have a future on Earth other than as entries in the historical record.

In recent decades, however, a force has emerged to counteract this trend. There are increasing efforts to stimulate the use of threatened languages. Some of these efforts are national or regional in scope, involving thousands of people, including Irish, Maori, and Hawaiian; others are geared at just a handful of individual languages, such as Karuk in California. Some of the programs involve formal instruction in schools; others are community-based initiatives that specifically avoid the involvement of educational institutions. Some are technology-dependent, using the internet, radio, and television. Others are firmly grounded in face-to-face interaction. While the long-term success of all these efforts remains to be seen, they do furnish a glimmer of hope that language death is not inevitable.

It is this hope that provides the raison d'être for The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice. The title of the volume evokes the possibility that languages might disburden themselves of their "endangered" status through the efforts of those who care about their continued use, and the editors have taken care to infuse the book with a spirit of optimism about the possibility of success. The Green Book in part serves a motivational function, but for the greater part, it is intended to be a resource manual of ideas, techniques, and tools for fighting language loss.

One can scarcely imagine a better qualified duo of editors for this endeavor. Leanne Hinton has been the driving force behind the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program in California, which teams fluent speakers of California Native American languages with younger members of their communities. Hinton has also participated in debates over bilingual education in California; has consulted on language preservation, maintenance, and revitalization projects for numerous Native American communities; and is a scholar on Native American languages.

Ken Hale's remarkable career ended last year with his death. He had made significant contributions to the development of linguistic theory in America and stood out among theoreticians as one committed to fieldwork, working on lesser-studied languages in Australia, North America, and Central America. He also taught training and revitalization efforts in the Americas.

The Green Book is organized into nine sections: the introduction, “Language Policy; Language Planning,” “Maintenance & Revitalization of National Indigenous Languages," "Immersion," "Literacy," "Media & Technology," "Training," and “Sleeping Languages." In each section, several articles summarize lessons learned from a specific revitalization or maintenance effort, providing an ample number of case studies. Several other articles furnish overviews of particular issues such as teaching methods, writing systems, and technology use. Moreover, 14 vignettes about specific languages appear throughout the book. For example, just before Gerald Morgan's contribution, "Welsh: A European Case of Language Maintenance" (chapter 10), a three-paragraph statement by Leanne Hinton tells what languages Welsh is related to, where it is spoken, and describes its decline in relation to English.

The papers in The Green Book strike an encouraging tone, but are peppered with realistic reminders about how arduous and challenging language revitalization can be. Only sporadically are statements counter-productively optimistic, as when Hinton writes, "If Hawai'i's independence movement were to result in a break from the United States, the importance of English there could conceivably decline, as Hawai'i would look to increase its economic ties with Polynesia and Asia." If the future of the Hawaiian language rests on Hawai'i winning independence from the United States, then the outlook for the language is gloomy indeed. If it further depends on a newly established Hawaiian nation forging commercial ties with other nations that would not involve English as the lingua franca, then realistically there is no hope for Hawaiian.

The essays in this volume are informative and readily accessible to the non-expert, yet also full of insights that even the seasoned language activist will benefit from reading. The editors wrote 14 of the 33 articles, lending the book a decided bias toward North America due to Hinton's and Hale's personal language-revitalization experience. Even so, the practical advice contained in The Green Book can be applied to maintenance and revitalization projects through out the world.
Lindsay J. Whaley is chair of the Department of Linguistics & Cognitive Science at Dartmouth College.

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