The health of language


IN this monthly discussion we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how to tell if your tok ples is healthy or not.
When we go to a clinic for a checkup, doctors use instruments to check things like our heartbeat, blood pressure, and weight. The doctors give us numbers that represent measurements of what these indicators of our health have to say about our health. Even if we feel fine, if our blood pressure is too high or if we weigh too much for our height, the doctors will tell us that we have a health issue that needs taking care of or else we have trouble in future.
In the same way, linguists use a series of tests to test the health or vitality of a language. A healthy language is one that is being used by a community and is not in danger of dying out. The more unhealthy signs a language shows, the greater the danger of it dying out.
About 15 years ago, UNESCO identified nine factors that indicate how healthy a language is and whether we can expect it to survive in the next generation or two. UNESCO assesses each factor on a scale of 5 (“yes definitely”) to 1 (“barely”) to 0 (“extinct”). We can use these factors to give your language an overall score on a scale from “extreme vitality” to “nearly extinct”.
You might like to look at these factors and see if your tok ples is healthy or if it is in trouble.
Factor 1: Intergenerational Language Transmission
Is your language being passed on to the next generation? A rating of 5 means the language is being learned and spoken by young children. A rating of 1 means only grandparents use it.
Factor 2: Absolute Number of Speakers
Is your language spoken by a large group of people? A small language group can be wiped out by disease or natural disasters, or it can be so small that its speakers must seek marriage partners from larger groups.
Factor 3: Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population
What is the percentage of people in your province or region who speak your language? A rating of 5 means everyone speaks that language (maybe Engan is the only PNG language that rates a 5). A rating of 1 means that almost everyone in your province speaks other languages.
Factor 4: Shifts in Domains of Language Use
“Domains” means social spaces where the language is used, like markets, church, school, family, women’s groups, haus boi, etc. A rating of 5 means that your language is used in all
these areas. A rating of 1 means that your language is used in only a few of these areas and other languages, such as Tok Pisin or English, are used in most other interactions.
Factor 5: Response to New Domains and Media
Is your language used with modern media, such as the internet, text messaging, chat rooms, music videos, and radio? A rating of 5 means it is used actively in all these new technologies. A rating of 1 means it Is almost never used.
Factor 6: Availability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy
Are there textbooks and reading books in your language and are they freely available? A rating of 5 means these books have been produced and are easy to obtain. A rating of 0 means there is not yet a writing system for the language. A rating in between means some materials have been produced (perhaps by SIL), but they are not widely known or distributed.
Factor 7: Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies, Including Official Status and Use
Does the government use and support the use of the language? A rating of 5 would mean that government services are available in your language and that the government recognises its importance and actively works to preserve and expand its use. This is sadly not the case in PNG. A rating of 1 means the government tries to assimilate the speakers into using a different language or even forbid the language being used in public. This does happen with minority languages in some countries, but luckily not in PNG. In this country we are probably at UNESCO level 3, “passive assimilation”. The government does nothing to protect the language, but doesn’t condemn local language use either. By doing nothing, it just lets its speakers shift into other languages, usually Tok Pisin or English.
Factor 8: Community Members’ Attitudes towards Their Own Language
Do community members value their language? A rating of 5 means that all members value the use of their language. A rating of 1 means only a few people value the language, while a rating of 0 means there is no one in the community who values the language.
Factor 9: Type and Quality of Documentation
Are there dictionaries and grammatical descriptions of the language? A rating of 5 means there has been extensive linguistic research and documentation, with many texts recorded for future generations. A rating of 1 means there are just some short word lists or legends recorded. A rating of 0 means there has been no linguistic documentation and no recordings made of the language.
Your language’s score?
So, how well did your language pass the test? Is it healthy and likely to be around for many more years? Great! Or is it in danger of disappearing? If it is in danger of disappearing, is this something that is of concern to you and your community or not? If it is a concern, what will you do to reverse the trend?
You can read and download the full UNESCO document “Language Vitality and Endangerment” at: http://

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland, and Jakob Fugger Visiting Professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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