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Assessment scales of language endangerment vs in-depth studies: The case of Ngoni in Tanzania

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Title: Assessment scales of language endangerment vs in-depth studies: The case of Ngoni in Tanzania
Authors: Rosendal, Tove
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: There is a need to go beyond the often used assessment scales for judging language endangerment, proposed by i. a. Fishman (1991), UNESCO by Brenzinger, Yamamoto et al. (2003), Lewis and Simons (2010) and Moseley and Nicholas (2010), to properly establish the vitality of languages in a bi- or multilingual contact situation. Only more fine-grained studies adapted to the local context can provide a grounded evaluation of language endangerment and the necessary understanding of processes at work regarding language maintenance or loss.

The Tanzanian policy has successfully promoted Swahili for decades as official language and uses Swahili as medium of instruction. Neither past nor present policies designate any other Tanzanian languages for use in formal domains of society. This has undermined both the status and use of all other Tanzanian languages.

On the basis of a study providing quantitative sociolinguistic data which show the status and use of the Tanzanian language Ngoni in contact with Swahili in a rural area in the Ruvuma Region in southwestern Tanzania, the study exemplifies that a too general assessment can be misleading. The key factor Intergenerational language transmission maintenance (Legère 2007; Austin 2008; Norris 2010; Grenoble 2011), would, without the kind of in-depth study which is exemplified in this paper, probably have been assessed and labelled as ‘safe’ (grade 5 of 5 in UNESCO’s endangerment scale) because the language is used by all ages, from children up. Furthermore, without a grounded knowledge of the local Ngoni community, it would probably be assumed that all members value their language and wish to see it promoted. However, the study clearly shows that attitudes among children in these communities are quite different. Language transmission in the Ngoni area should on the contrary be labelled ‘unsafe’, using the UNESCO scale, and the language may be said to be used in ‘dwindling domains’. Using the scale of Moseley and Nicholas (2010) Ngoni is ‘vulnerable’. Thus, endangerment assessment scales must at least be complemented with more grounded fieldwork to be reliable as an indicator of needed intervention or revitalization.

Austin, P. K., Ed. 2008. One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Brenzinger, Matthias, Akira Yamamoto, Noriko Aikawa, Dmitri Koundiouba, Anahit Minasyan, Arienne Dwyer, Colette Grinevald, Michael Krauss, Osahito Miyaoka, Osamu Sakiyama, Rieks Smeets, and Ofelia Zepeda. 2003. Language vitality and endangerment. Paris: UNESCO Expert Meeting on Safeguarding Endangered Languages.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threathened languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Grenoble, L. 2011. Language Ecology and Endangerment. The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. P. K. Austin and J. Sallabank. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legère, K. 2007. Vidunda (G38) as an endangered language? 37th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, Somerville, MA,: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Lewis, M. Paul, and Gary F. Simons. 2010. "Assessing Endangerment: expanding Fishman's GIDS." Romanian Review of Linguistics no. 55 (2):103-120.

Moseley, Christopher, and Alexandre Nicholas. 2010. Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Paris: UNESCO publishing.

Norris, M. J. 2010. Canada and Greenland. in: Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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