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Endangered Languages

Assessing Language Vitality

When a language dies, its speakers' culture, art and history also die. Once that happens, almost no chance of reviving them remains. To help determine the vitality of the world's lesser-known languages, SIL engages in extensive language survey.

Through survey, SIL looks for elements that may signal a threat to a language's survival such as: when speakers move to other areas where different languages are spoken, or when government policy promotes the use of a specific language in school, official business and the media. These situations encourage people to learn the wider-known language and may cause them, especially the young, to stop using their mother tongue. Often those speaking lesser-known languages will choose to learn a more prestigious language with the hope of greater economic opportunities.

Survey of language vitality determines the most helpful type of language development needed. Although dying languages may not be targeted for a full language development program, research is needed to record their unique features and increase the world's knowledge of language.

SIL has collected helpful articles on assessing language vitality from papers presented at the 1997 International Language Assessment Conference. Written by leading scholars and SIL language survey specialists, these articles appear in Assessing Ethnolinguistic Vitality: Theory and Practice, edited by Gloria Kindell and M. Paul Lewis, published by SIL International in 2000. Assessing Language Vitality and additional resources on this topic and many others are available from SIL International Publications.