Language Development


While the news seems to highlight the mounting external and internal pressures that are driving language endangerment, not all languages are endangered. Many languages have both oral and literary traditions and are being used for a wide variety of functions in society. Many other communities, which have not achieved that status for their languages, are nevertheless taking steps to preserve the vitality of their languages by finding new ways of using them. Ethnologue records and reports data about these aspects of language use under the rubric of language development.

Defining language development

The term language development can be used in both an individual and a societal sense. It is commonly used among psychologists and educators with reference to individuals to refer to the phenomenon of child language acquisition (that is, how infants acquire language). Ethnologue uses the term in the sense given to it by Charles Ferguson (1968) who defined language development at the societal level as primarily dealing with three areas of concern:

  • graphization —the development of a system of writing,
  • standardization —the development of a norm that overrides regional and social dialects, and
  • modernization —the development of the ability to translate and carry on discourse about a broad range of topics including those that are new or foreign to the local community.

These development activities are now generally known as language planning activities, subsumed specifically within what is called “corpus planning” (Cooper 1989). More broadly, Ethnologue defines language development as follows:

Language development is the result of the series of on-going planned actions that language communities take to ensure that they can effectively use their languages to achieve their social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual goals.

As Ferguson proposed, those planned actions most often consist of the development of writing systems, the standardization of norms, and the elaboration of terminology designed to expand the functions of a language in a society. Language development activities may also go well beyond corpus planning and cover a broad range of activities including advocacy on behalf of minority languages and other actions outside of the realm of linguistics proper. This broader definition of language development encompasses not only the acquisition of the means of reading and writing the language, but also the uses of the language in a variety of media and for as many functions as the speech community finds useful.

Evaluating language development

Ethnologue provides data not only on the factors which are indicators of endangerment but also on numerous indicators of development. Notable among the data that we report are:

  • Identification of the writing systems in use both currently and historically
  • Literacy rates in the language as well as in the dominant languages in the region
  • The existence of various kinds of literature including poetry, stories, translated materials (including health and development literature and the Bible), and other print media such as newspapers and magazines
  • The use of the language in the broadcast media (radio, television, recorded materials on compact disc, tape, digital video discs, etc.), or in films and videos
  • The use of the language in so-called “new media” such as in web pages, social media, chat rooms, podcasts and MP3 downloads, and for SMS texting on mobile phones or other electronic devices
  • The use of the language for governance functions
  • The use of the language by others as their second language

These indicators of the state of development of a language are presented within the language entries according to their nature and focus; see Language development under Language Information . In those cases where most of these development types are amply present, rather than listing them all separately, we simply categorize a language as “fully developed”.

Language development and the EGIDS

We report a summary evaluation of the vitality of the languages of the world by using the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale or EGIDS (Lewis and Simons 2010), an adaptation and expansion of Fishman’s (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS). In each language entry (under the label Status ) an estimate of the development versus endangerment of every identified language in each country where that language is spoken is reported; see Language Status for the definitions of the levels.

In the middle of the scale is level 6a (Vigorous). These languages are represented by the green bars in the summary graphs; these are not developing, but neither are they endangered since they enjoy vigorous face-to-face use in daily life by all generations. We report this to be the condition of 2,116 (or 30%) of the 7,139 known living languages in the world.

The first step up the development side of the EGIDS scale is level 5 (Developing). These languages are represented by the blue bars in the summary graphs; they are in the initial stages of development (graphization, standardization, modernization). Literature in a standardized form is being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable. We report this to be the condition of 1,471 (or 21%) of the 7,139 known living languages in the world.

All of the remaining levels on the development side of the EGIDS scale (4 and higher) have in common that the language has been developed to the point that it is used and sustained by institutions beyond the home and community. These languages are represented by the violet bars in the summary graphs; as a class they are referred to as “Institutional” languages. We report this to be the condition of 534 (or 7%) of the 7,139 known living languages in the world. EGIDS levels 4 and higher are referred to individually as Educational (EGIDS 4), Wider Communication (EGIDS 3), Provincial (EGIDS 2), National (EGIDS 1), and International (EGIDS 0). These successively stronger levels on the scale take into account the growing number of both uses and users of the language, including its native community as well as those who have learned it as a second language.

Language development and language endangerment are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, many languages that had once risen above EGIDS level 6a (due to language development efforts when they were in vigorous use by all generations) are now losing users. The endangerment indicators are given precedence in EGIDS; therefore, such languages are classed at 6b or lower. There are also many communities whose languages are endangered (at EGIDS levels weaker than 6a) who are engaging in planned actions designed to improve the vitality of their languages. Even if such activities result in widely adopted standardization and literature, the EGIDS level will not rise above level 6a until the community also achieves sustainable face-to-face use by all generations. The threshold of stable face-to-face use identified by EGIDS 6a serves as a categorical boundary line for overall classification as developed versus endangered, though each specific case may be characterized by a complex configuration of indicators of both endangerment and development.