Language revitalization: issues and outcomes

Sallabank, Julia
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This paper looks at examples of language-related activities in the Channel Islands (between Britain and France) and relates them to theoretical issues regarding language revitalization, in an attempt to address the fundamental questions of what is meant by ‘saving a language’, and what might constitute ‘success’ in language revitalization. With reference to the case studies I discuss common trends such as: - a focus on formal education, ‘technical fixes’ and language as ‘window-dressing’ - a general lack of ‘prior ideological clarification’ when planning revitalization activities - a tendency not to specify short- and long-term goals (except in very broad terms) - lack of evaluation of outcomes, especially in terms of symbolic value versus sustainable language use in the community, or what other value(s) might be invested in language revitalization (e.g. political capital or social revitalization) - the assumption that ‘the community’ is homogeneous - prioritising the maintenance of the existing/traditional speaker community - debates concerning ‘correctness’ and language change - a top-down / ‘modernist’ / ‘Western’ model of language and its functions. In the two larger Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, the indigenous vernaculars, Jèrriais and Guernesiais (varieties of Norman) declined significantly in the 20th century and are now critically endangered; however, attitudes have become noticeably more positive in the last 30 years. Language is increasingly seen as a valuable marker of island distinctiveness, which has led to a degree of government support, increased visibility in the ‘linguistic landscape’, and public rhetoric supporting the island languages and their symbolic value. Language support measures in the Channel Islands have thus addressed attitudes, but not necessarily linguistic behaviour. Despite overt focus on lessons, Jèrriais and Guernesiais have not been adopted into the official school curriculum, and ‘revitalization’ efforts have not yet produced many fluent new speakers. Diverse stakeholders may have different goals and understandings of language revitalization, which may not be stated but need to be inferred from discourses and observations. The discussion unavoidably entails issues of authority and correctness in language itself and in decisions about priorities and policies. The presentation will show examples of language-related activities and discourses, and discuss their rationale and outcomes, and the extent to which they constitute ‘language revitalization’.
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