Assessing Language Endangerment and Vitality

In order to assess the state of language endangerment in the border regions between Nepal and India, eleven key factors will be used in this study. These factors have been based on the nine criteria for assessing language vitality and endangerment proposed to UNESCO by an International Expert meeting on “Safeguarding of the Endangered Languages”, March 10-12, 2003 (UNESCO, 2003). These factors, or variations on them, have been used in projects around the world, usually to examine the vitality of just one language of concern. We have supplemented these from our own experience of documenting languages in Nepal and producing technology for Nepal’s major languages. The factors are:
  1. Inter-generational language transmission.The language is transmitted from one generation to the next, and use by both older and younger generations in all contexts is crucial. The more transmission occurs from one generation to the next, the stronger the language is.
  2. Absolute number of speakers. A small population is much more vulnerable than a larger one to decimation by disease, warfare, natural disaster, or by merger with a larger group. In communities divided by a national border, whether the two communities keep in contact could be critical.
  3. Proportion of speakers within the total population and their status. The number of speakers in relation to the total population of a group is a significant indicator of language vitality.
  4. Migration to urban areas and foreign countries for job or education, and contact with wider diaspora.Migration to foreign countries can lead to language loss as the person is surrounded by other people with whom they must communicate in a second language. However contact with an active diaspora can counteract this.
  5. Language Status.Migration to foreign countries can lead to language loss as the person is surrounded by other people with whom they must communicate in a second language. However contact with an active diaspora can counteract this.
  6. Shifts in domains of language use.Where and with whom is the language used, and for what range of topics it is used, affects whether or not it is transmitted to the next generation.
  7. Response to new domains and media.As a community develops, new domains of use emerge, and the language should be used for these. The new domains include schools, new work environments, and new media such as FM Radio, Television, Films and increasingly today the Internet.
  8. Materials for language education and literacy.Is the language written and an orthography agreed within the community? Is education conducted in the language with materials available in oral, written and other media forms? The greater the varieties of materials that exist in the language, and the more they are used for education, the stronger the language is.
  9. Government and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use.Explicit policies and/ or implicit attitudes toward the dominant and subordinate languages can be positive and strengthen the language of the community, or negative and weaken it. On either side of an international border these policies could be very different.
  10. Community members' attitude towards their own languages.Members of a speech community may see their language as essential to their community and identity, take pride in it and promote it. Or they may be ashamed of it, see it as a nuisance and actively avoid using it.
  11. Amount and Quality of documentation.The language itself should be well-documented with comprehensive dictionaries and grammars. There should be an abundance of well-documented, transcribed, translated, and analyzed materials, both historical and contemporary, and abundant annotated high-quality audio and video recordings.
All of these factors can be rated on a 6 point scale from 0, the point of extinction, to 5 for a language that is very strong and not in danger. All factors are important and any weakness in any factor could threaten the language.


UNESCO (2003) Language Vitality and Endangerment, UNESCO, Paris