How do you bring a dying language back from the brink? Incubate it in a nest, of course.
[A quite note: a draft of this post accidentally went out a day early to email subscribers. Sorry about that!]
I’ve written before about dying languages. When a language is losing native speakers it can be very difficult to reverse the process. Even if adults start learning a language again, native fluency relies on people learning it early – as one of their first languages. In the 1980s in New Zealand, an innovative approach put the local community and its youngest children at the centre of language revival.
The first language nest (kōhanga reo) was set up in New Zealand in 1982 to lift fluency in the Māori language. Jean Puketapu, Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi, and others identified that language development works best when it is totally immersive (i.e. you’re speaking the language all day long), when you start young (i.e. preschool), and when the local elders and families get involved. These nests were even owned and run by the community, and they flourished. The kōhanga reo created a whole new generation of native speakers.
Since then, language nests have been used for Hawai’ian, Lakota, Miriwoong, Secwepemc, Võro, Inari Sámi, Skolt Sami, Cornish, and many other languages. If you haven’t heard of most of those languages… well, that’s the point of language revival.
[Endnote: this is one of the topics I promised to write about. More to follow.]