Endangered Languages and “Reversing Language Shift”

With eight hundred spoken languages, New York City is the most linguistically diverse location in the world. Linguistic anthropologists have learned that many endangered languages die in New York, because the last speakers of those languages have immigrated to New York, and eventually die there. It’s believed that up to half of the world’s languages are endangered, and might die out in this century. “But why do languages die? Communities can be wiped out through wars, disease or natural disasters, and take their languages with them when they go. More commonly, though, people transition out of one mother tongue into another, either by choice or under duress, a process that linguists refer to as language shift” (Turin).

Language shift, though a slow and seemingly natural process, is a threat to the cultures of the endangered languages. Linguist Joshua Fishman wrote a book titled Reversing Language Shift (RLS), in which he discusses the preservation of threatened languages. Fishman considers “intergenerational language transmission” to be the key of RLS. In other words, the use of the language within families and among the community is crucial to preserving the language.

Some of the works on display at the Yiddish Book Center (Image)


Some endangered languages, like Yiddish, do bounce back, due to a preservation of Yiddish language publications and radio shows. Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center, believes that the comeback of Yiddish in daily life has to do with young people engaging with the Jewish identity in a new way (Turin). Lansky’s work serves as evidence to support the cultural benefits of reversing language shift.