Sustainable Language Use

In the 16th edition, the Ethnologue added an evaluation of the vitality status of each language using the EGIDS, our own scale. I wrote about that at length here last year. What I didn't mention then is that the EGIDS is the cornerstone of a larger framework for understanding language maintenance and shift that we are calling the Sustainable Use Model (SUM). 

The SUM isn't part of the Ethnologue itself but the perspective that it provides is increasingly shaping our efforts to collect and report data about the languages of the world, so a brief description may be helpful.  I'll be talking about this at the AILA 2014 conference this month in Brisbane, Australia so this is also an opportunity for me to preview what I'll be saying there.

The loss of linguistic diversity is a widely recognized phenomenon that is being addressed in many ways by linguists, anthropologists and speakers of the endangered languages themselves. The reporting that we do in the Ethnologue using the EGIDS is one way in which we can contribute to that response. The SUM proposes that, given the global phenomenon of diversity reduction, it is important that language maintenance efforts be understood within the context of the disruption, not only of language transmission, but of knowledge transmission.  Speakers of non-dominant languages need to find ways to preserve the transmission of their life-crucial knowledge and the choices they make in that regard have important implications for language use.

This proposal that the most important concern for speakers of non-dominant languages is the sustainable transmission of life-crucial knowledge represents the fundamental shift in perspective offered by the Sustainable Use Model.  The choices of language(s) and media for that knowledge transmission are ancillary to the decisions a community makes in regard to what bodies of knowledge it will preserve, acquire, and pass on to future generations.

The SUM proposes a process which includes:  (1) the development of specific goals for the ongoing transmission of life-crucial knowledge in the languages used by an identified speech community, (2) an assessment of the current vitality status of the language(s) in the linguistic repertoire of the community using the EGIDS, (3) the identification of a desired sustainable level of use for those languages, and (4) detailed planning to address the conditions which impede the realization of the community’s knowledge/language planning goals. For this last point, we have developed a set of five conditions using the acronym FAMED: Functions, Acquisition, Motivation, Environment and Differentiation.  The evaluation of those conditions enables language development activists to specifically target the conditions that are insufficient to support sustainable language use.

The SUM has been designed to be implemented as a community-based participatory process which gives community members primary agency in decision-making and program implementation. You won't see much mention of these components of the Sustainable Use Model in the Ethnologue, other than the EGIDS, but as the model begins to be applied, we hope to see its impact on the vitaity profiles that we update with each new edition.

If you want to know more about the SUM, leave a comment below. I'll be happy to respond.