In the 1970s, the Hawaiian language seemed poised for extinction. Only about 2,000 native speakers remained, and most were over age 60. Then a dedicated group of advocates launched immersion schools, a Hawaiian radio program, and an island-wide movement to resuscitate the melodious language. Today more than 18,600 people speak Hawaiian as fluently as they speak English.
Around the world, other Indigenous languages are experiencing revivals. More and more children are being raised as native speakers of Euskara in Spain, Māori in New Zealand, and Quechua in Peru and Bolivia. Activists are making street signs, public maps, news programs, films, publications, websites, and music available in various heritage languages.
Some people are even resurrecting “extinct” languages. In southwest England, Cornish—whose last native speaker died in 1777—was taken off UNESCO’s list of extinct languages in 2010 and is enjoying a small but proud reawakening, thanks in part to the internet.
We live in a pivotal time for language revitalization. More than half the world’s languages are in danger of being swallowed up by dominant languages within this century. In November, the United Nations—which named 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages—approved a draft resolution declaring 2022–2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.
A growing movement of language activists, cultural stakeholders, and scholars are finding new ways to foster generations of speakers through everything from digital dictionaries to drum circles. These programs are elevating the status of heritage languages in the public eye, providing opportunities for people to connect, and helping marginalized communities address longstanding discrimination.
But turning the tide of language extinction is no easy feat, and many languages being revived are still considered threatened.
Read more: Sapiens