Beyond Words - Language Blog

A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Language Resuscitation

Just as linguists drew from the field of biology to apply the terms “living”, “endangered”, “dead”, and “extinct” to languages, so, too, do other fields dip into linguistics, either to develop models based on concepts popularized in that field or – in the case of mathematician Anne Kandler and colleagues – to lend a helping hand.

Using Scottish Gaelic as a springboard language, Kandler and colleagues published a study in 2010 in which they mapped a model that incorporates various linguistic and cultural aspects to determine the amount of new Gaelic speakers necessary each year to keep the language from slipping into dangerous territory. The model includes the number of native-Gaelic and native-English speakers, rate of loss of Gaelic speakers, and several less easily-defined components such as prestige, cultural value, and economic benefit of the language. Furthermore, Kandler incorporated the historical elements of “language shift” that have led to the Gaelic language’s decline in the past two centuries, including demographic changes and the replacement of English as the language of education and politics.

According to Kandler’s model, a total of 860 English speakers would need to learn Gaelic each year to maintain current numbers. This figure pleased members of the national Gaelic Development Agency, as their aim was to produce roughly that number of bilingual English-Gaelic speakers through classes and educational programs, a spokesman told The Scotsman after Kandler’s findings were published. While individualized models would need to be developed for individual endangered languages, a mathematical approach to a cultural and linguistic concern may provide objective testing parameters for programs that aim to keep those languages alive.


Illustration: “Percentages of Gaelic speakers (mono- and bilingual) in Scotland in successive census years, 1891–2001” by The Royal Society.