EuLaViBar - Another Way to Evaluate Vitality

I’ve talked quite a bit here about the EGIDS, the scale we’ve developed for the Ethnologue that provides us with a way to evaluate the status of a language’s vitality.  The EGIDS was designed to give us a shorthand way to categorize something that is extremely complex.  We don’t consider it to be the “final answer,” but rather the “starting answer,” when someone wants to know the vitality status of a particular language.  From that general EGIDS categorization, a researcher or a speaker of the language can begin to delve into the intricacies of what factors are contributing to the current status of the language (whether endangered or developing).

Last June I was privileged to be a participant in the closing conference of the ELDIA Project. The ELDIA project is a good example of how one might analyze the situation of a language in an in-depth and interdisciplinary way. Unlike the Ethnologue with its broad scope (the languages of the world), the ELDIA Project focused very narrowly on just 10 Finno-Ugric languages in Europe (some in multiple locations), but examined those languages in the various countries where they are spoken in great depth.  There is a summary report available. The results of that project, forthcoming as 12 monograph-length volumes, will be well-worth looking at.  But even more interesting from our perspective is the methodology that was used and the tools that the ELDIA consortium (representing 8 universities in 6 European countries) have developed. Like the Ethnologue, the ELDIA project has taken a language-in-country approach and has focused not only on the linguistics of these minority languages, but also looked at the legal and policy environment, and the use of the languages in the arts and media.  The languages they studied are:

This well-rounded approach provides the kind of in-depth data that both scholars and community members themselves need in order to effectively engage in language revitalization and development work. 

The major tool used for this study is called the European Language Vitality Barometer, melodiously abbreviated as EuLaViBar (you-lah-vee-bar). There is a very convenient toolkit  that makes the implementation of the EuLaViBar quite straightforward.  At the heart of the EuLaViBar, as with many social science research projects, is a questionnaire to be filled out by individuals. It asks about the individual’s background and language use patterns and about family history, language competence, language attitudes, and what the designers have called language products—actual materials in the language. The compilation of these individual questionnaires from a broad sampling of individuals paints the picture of the status of the language in each location.

This approach aligns well with  Ethnolinguistic Vitality Theory (EVT), a very widely used and accepted attempt at explaining why people maintain or give up their languages (and identities).  Many other approaches to evaluating vitality status (including the EGIDS) also employ some or all of the basic concepts of EVT.  More specifically, the EuLaViBar follows and augments the model developed by Grin and Vaillancourt which identifies Capacity, Opportunity, and Desire (COD) as the major components of analysis of language retention and shift.  To this COD model, the ELDIA project researchers have added the existence of language products as an important indicator of language vitality.  And they have significantly developed their research into the Opportunity component with in-depth study of the legal environment and the existence of products in the languages themselves. Each of the resulting four dimensions are then rated on a five point scale with zero being the lowest or weakest and four the highest or strongest level. The results can be graphically represented in a diagram, a “radar chart,” and the toolkit very conveniently provides a template for producing the graphic.

So why is this important? First, language vitality is extremely complex. It is difficult for us to be able to describe the situation of a language in clear and simple terms. Depending on the goals of the investigator, more or less detailed research may be needed.  EGIDS is one fairly shallow approach that provides broad coverage serving the goals of the Ethnologue to provide consistent, concise, and comprehensive information about the languages of the world. The EuLaViBar is an alternative that goes into much greater depth and detail about a specific, very limited, set of languages.  This results in a bit more complex description (the radar chart) that is, in the end, also a summary and generalization of the actual dynamics of the situation. The toolkit provides a structured approach so that these more in-depth studies can be replicated in other settings with other languages.

Second, it seems that those of us who are investigating language maintenance and shift are coming to a consensus, though we use different terms and labels and different ways of displaying our results. Different researchers are slicing up the categories in slightly different ways,  but all of us are zeroing in on the major factors that must be investigated in order to adequately describe the dynamics of language vitality.  In the EuLaViBar those are Capacity, Opportunity, Desire and Language Products.  In the model that we are developing here at "Ethnologue Central," we are using somewhat different labels but which cover much the same ground (Functions, Acquisition, Motivation, Environment, Differentiation).  A fuller explanation on this point is fodder for at least another Ethnoblog and possibly for a couple of conference papers and publications! Stay tuned.

I was happy to be part of the ELDIA closing event and to learn more about the EuLaViBar. This brief description doesn’t do the EuLaViBar justice so I’d encourage you to go to the ELDIA Project website and explore the resources that have been made available.