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Language Diversity, Endangerment, and Revitalization

by Robert Elliott |

Teepee on the Mall

November 2023. I’m in Washington, DC walking down the National Mall on my first ever visit to the nation's capital. The institute I work at—the Northwest Indian Language Institute at the University of Oregon—was just awarded funding to help build a regional Native American Language Resource Center, or an NALRC. Grantees are in DC for an initial grant startup meeting along with the other soon-to-be NALRCs—University of Arizona, University of Hawaii Hilo, and Little Priest Tribal College. Our mandate is to support Indigenous language teaching and learning in our regions and across the United States.

In the distance, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, I spot what looks like a small white tent. As we approach, it becomes clear it is a teepee, and I find out it was put up by Native youth activists. The juxtaposition is jarring. Two opposite symbols of the United States: one stark and stoic, made of white marble and granite, an old-world obelisk symbolizing the power of the nation-state, thrusting 555 feet high into the sky; the other intimate and modest, conical and transportable, made of lodge poles and canvas, a traditional dwelling planted firmly on the ground, used by some tribes in North America (and nearly all tribes depicted in Hollywood). The teepee seems to stand there in defiance, emphasizing “We are still here” to any who notice.

Teepee on the National Mall, November 2023: Two icons face off. (©Northwest Indian Language Institute; CC BY-NC-ND)

Like the image of the teepee on the Mall near the Washington Monument, the work stabilizing and restoring indigenous languages can be both wonderful and intimidating. It is an honor to do this work, a huge responsibility. But how is it that a trained English language teacher finds himself working in the only somewhat related field of language revitalization? And why should English language teachers—or anyone else for that matter—be concerned about language endangerment and the global loss of smaller languages?

I began my career in English language teaching in the 1990s in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2007, midcareer, I and my young family moved to a new state and university. At that point, I began getting involved with the on-campus institute I now work at full time and shifted my focus to language revitalization. There were many skills I had gained in English language teaching that transferred, but just as many new ones to learn. Because I am a descendent of the Navajo Nation, this was a unique opportunity to explore an intersection of my professional and personal lives.

The field of language revitalization is transdisciplinary, drawing upon many fields, including linguistics, language teaching, language policy and planning, education, psychology, sociology, materials writing, digital media development, advocacy, and management. Yet it is more than the sum of its parts; it is its own, unique discipline. One of the most unusual job duties is illustrated by the term learner-teacher. In most language teaching, fluency in the target language is expected. In language revitalization, on the other hand, the learner-teacher is often a second-language speaker of their own heritage language, a younger person who has been entrusted with teaching the next generation. They often work closely with an elder to increase fluency. For many tribes, the remaining first-language speakers are in their 70s, 80s, or older; some languages have no remaining first-language speakers, only documentation to work from. As part of job duties, the learner-teacher must simultaneously work to build proficiency while preparing to teach, sometimes just a few steps ahead of next week’s lessons.

The institute I work at was founded to support teachers of threatened, Indigenous languages. Since the late 1800s, researchers have been coming to Native communities in our region to “study them” before they “disappear,” to look at them as if under a microscope, to dissect and analyze, then publish papers and foster their own academic careers. In this extractive model, the languages continued to erode.  In 1997, Native language speakers, teachers, and learners from tribes in our region came to the university and asked for support in documenting and maintaining their languages. Twenty-six years later, the institute is still standing, and now one of the recipients of the NALRC grant.

Native language educators gather for a workshop at the author’s university, summer 2023. (©Northwest Indian Language Institute; CC BY-NC-ND)

NALRCs are loosely modeled on National Foreign Language Resource Centers (NFLRCs), which were first established in 1990 to address the poor state of language education in the United States. Today, there are 15 NFLRCs scattered across the nation, each with a slightly different mission. There is also growing support for protecting our country's Indigenous languages—arguably one of our most unique and fragile heritages—verified by the passing of legislation like the Native American Languages Act and funding for Native American Language Resource Centers. But why would such support be needed?

Language Diversity

Precontact and before Columbus, the linguistic landscape of the United States was incredibly diverse, with approximately 300 languages from around 58 language families or isolates represented. When compared to modern day Europe, with an estimated 24 languages from three language families and a few more isolates, you can grasp the incredible linguistic diversity. California and Oregon were particularly language rich. First-Nations people, typically multilingual, had long histories of intermarriage, trade, and cultural interaction. The current ideology of monolingualism—the United States as an English-only speaking country—is factually and historically inaccurate.

Linguistic diversity is of course not unique to the United States. Worldwide, there are currently an estimated 6,000–7,000 languages (Linguistic Society of America, 2023). Asia alone, for example, has an estimated 2,300 languages. However, the vast majority of human languages are spoken by relatively few people. Estimates suggest 3,000 of the world's languages are spoken by only 0.2% of the world’s population. About 150 languages are spoken by 10 people or fewer. In contrast, six of the biggest languages are spoken by 45% of the world population. The biggest 83 languages are spoken by nearly 80% (Upadhyay & Hasnain, 2017). In other words, there are a handful of very big languages, while there are many, many small ones.

Language Loss: A Global Phenomenon

Just as animal and plant species are facing global endangerment at exceedingly high levels, the world’s linguistic diversity is also seriously threatened. The prediction is that over half of the current world’s languages will cease to be spoken by the year 2100 (Sorosoro, 2023). Though languages come and go, evolve and change over time, and even “die” as part of a normal cycle, what we are experiencing now is a mass extinction of languages many times larger than the normal background rate. Presently, a new language dies out about every other week. Countries and regions from all around the world are experiencing language loss. When intergenerational language transmission is interrupted, the challenges mount. Smaller languages are being replaced by regional, national, or international languages. Domains and contexts for using smaller languages are shrinking, much like islands eroded by rising sea waters. 

Causes of global language loss are complicated. For some, it is a matter of economics, as speaking dominant languages is seen as a tool to access opportunities for economic advancement. Language ideology also plays a role, as intentional and unintentional messages are passed along; for example, sometimes parents have come to believe they are doing a disservice to their children if they speak their Indigenous language. Online spaces are dominated by large languages, with 90% of the internet space written in only 12 languages. And Nation states have tended to endorse “one country, one language” policies as a way of branding national identities. A Pakistani language educator I’ve worked with described the situation in his village as follows: “People in my hometown speak at least three languages: their mother-tongue, the regional language and English. Their mother tongue is the language of the heart, while English is the language of the pocketbook.”

In North America, historical practices of cultural genocide expedited language loss. Boarding schools in the United States and residential schools in Canada were places of forced assimilation and language suppression. General Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Boarding school, coined the phrase “kill the Indian, save the man,” and government boarding schools were the official solution to the “Indian problem” starting in the 1860s and lasting up to the 1970s (Yu, 2009).

Boarding school advocates such as Pratt were the “progressives” of the era, as they were countering calls for the outright extermination of Native peoples. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” became an oft used expression. Even Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying “I don’t go so far as to say that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth” (American Museum of Natural History, n.d.).

If those advocating the boarding school as “rehabilitation” were the progressives, it makes one stop and think. I personally feel we cannot judge the past with the moral perspective of today. Still, there is no doubt that what happened was forced cultural assimilation or even ethnic cleansing. As a teacher of English or other large languages, we should ask ourselves:

    • Are we doing something similar today?
    • Are we effectively supporting the erosion of smaller mother tongue languages, directly or indirectly?
    • Are we passing along intentional or unintentional language ideologies about the value of some languages over others?
    • Are we using methods and practices that we will later look back on and realize we did harm?

I am not arguing we necessarily are. I am saying the questions are worth reflecting upon as we examine our work and our profession.

Language Revitalization

The story of endangered language does not end with hopelessness. It cannot. And it will not, as long as there are communities with new generations of young people interested in keeping their languages and cultures alive. Like the teepee on the National Mall, Indigenous peoples and their languages are resilient.

Intergenerational transmission with elder first-language speaker, and apprentice Learner-Teacher and her child, summer 2023. (©Northwest Indian Language Institute; CC BY-NC-ND)

All across the United States and the entire globe, there is a tremendous groundswell of interest and awareness around the issues of language diversity and revitalization. The United Nations has declared 2022–2032 the decade of Indigenous languages. In the United States, Native language programs, some long established, some newly minted, are a growing presence where people are working to document, build materials, teach, share, and spread their languages in and out of schools, with families and community members.

The example of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance and language revitalization successes are pointed to as a model. Starting with preschool immersion programs in the 1970s, dedicated Hawaiian activists developed K–12 schools, college programs, and today even PhD programs, all done in the Hawaiian language. Ōlelo Hawai`i is reclaiming more and more domains. The tide is turning, and many good occurrences, like the U.S. federal funding for NALRCs, are an indicator of awareness and interest in support of tribal and collaborative initiatives. One grant, however, will not fix the problems and challenges caused by language endangerment.

What Can English Language Teachers Do?

I am often asked, “what can I do as a language teacher?” Here are a few ideas that some may wish to consider incorporating into their philosophy: 

    • Be curious and learn about the Indigenous languages or linguistic diversity of your area.
    • Be a language professional; envision your job as more than only that of an English teacher.
    • Be a conduit of factual information; help counter false language ideologies and beliefs.
    • Be sensitive to and validate the often hidden plurilingual identities of your learners.
    • Be an advocate and ally to small languages and language revitalization efforts.

Some say it took three generations to have our languages taken from us; we cannot expect the languages to come back in 1, 5, or even 10 years. It will be a multigenerational effort, one where those who are doing the work now are building a solid foundation to work from—a set of straight and strong teepee poles—that will be passed to our children and grandchildren, who will continue the work into the future.


American Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). Theodore Roosevelt timeline.

Linguistic Society of America. (2023, December 10). How many languages are there in the world.

Sorosoro. (2023, December 10). Endangered Languages.

Upadhyay, R. K., & Hasnain, S. I. (2017). Linguistic diversity and biodiversity. Lingua, 195, 110–123.

Yu, J. (2009). Kill the Indian, save the man. Pennsylvania Center for the Book.

About the author

Robert Elliott

Robert Elliott is a Navajo/Diné descendent and is the director of the Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI) and the Yamada Language Center at the University of Oregon (UO). He began working as an English language instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has extensive experience in educational technology, online course development, and teacher education. NILI is a recent awardee of a U.S. Department of Education grant to develop a Native American Language Resource Center for the Northwest region, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.

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