PRINT October 2019



Detail of Endangered Language Alliance’s 2019 Languages of New York City map.

ONCE A MONTH, on the sixth floor of an old Manhattan office building, about a dozen people gather to try to speak one of the island’s original languages. Our teacher is Karen Hunter, who learned Lenape as an adult on a tribal reserve in Ontario, in the company of the last native speakers and the first revivalists. For more than a decade, she has been driving up to ten hours to and from New York and other locales to share what she knows, without compensation, with indigenous people (Ramapo, Matinecock, Montaukett) and interested others. These sessions at the Endangered Language Alliance, the nonprofit I codirect, may represent the first time Lenape has been taught in the city since the eighteenth century, when almost all of its speakers were driven out.

Today, colonial settler cities such as New York, Sydney, and Vancouver are among the most multilingual in history. Walking through their streets, you’ll hear Spanish, Tagalog, and Hebrew, but you’ll never encounter autochthonous languages like Lenape (New York), Darug (Sydney), or Squamish (Vancouver). Our cities’ remarkable diversity was preceded by acts of expulsion and dispossession that destroyed long histories of earlier settlement along with the languages that made settlement possible. If patterns continue, nearly half of the world’s approximately six thousand languages could be silenced, the planetary cultural collapse mirroring the ongoing elimination of plant and animal species.1 Anglophone settler societies like the United States constitute the center of the emergency. As many as half of the three hundred languages once spoken by the indigenous peoples of North America are already effectively gone, and fewer than twenty of those remaining—major languages like Cherokee, Navajo, and Yup’ik—are predicted to survive the coming decades.2 Likewise, after centuries of systematic disenfranchisement, many First Nations languages in Canada and Aboriginal languages in Australia are now spoken only by small clusters of elderly people.

Karen’s Lenape sessions are part of an unprecedented, decentralized global effort at cultural reclamation, which crystallized when the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Activists from hundreds of communities around the world, many of them very small in number, are intensifying the pioneering twentieth-century models of language renewal, such as those that swelled the population of speakers of Hebrew, Basque, Welsh, and Māori. Passing the language on to children at home is critical to any revitalization effort, but it can be crushingly difficult. Successful alternative approaches include the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program, developed in California in 1993 and now spreading to Canada and Australia, which pairs older speakers with younger learners for ten or more hours per week. All participants are paid and immersed in the language outside the classroom, ideally in hands-on, culturally relevant settings. The grassroots, activist-driven Hawaiian-language movement, another remarkable model, has built an entire education system from the ground up, offering everything from “language nests” for preschoolers to graduate studies in Hawaiian. The Welsh are using poetry and music to renew their language (still famously robust, given its geographic proximity to language-killing English).

Reawakening dormant languages requires extraordinary acts of coordination—administrative, social, and emotional—but it is possible. Take jessie “little doe” baird, a Wôpanâak woman who, when pregnant with her fifth child, Mae Alice, had a vision of reviving her ancestral language—the first tongue the Pilgrims encountered in coastal Massachusetts, which had been without speakers for more than a century. baird studied linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then spent the next twenty-six years leading a revival of Wôpanâak; Mae Alice is the first Wôpanâak-speaking child in generations. In Ohio, activist Daryl Baldwin has spearheaded the revival of Myaamia, dormant since the 1960s, first teaching it to himself, his wife, and their four children. Common to both community-led efforts was meticulous linguistic research that fed into the creation of immersion programs focused on fostering fluent new speakers.

Documentary records play a crucial role, especially when there are no living native speakers. In the early twentieth century, the American linguist J. P. Harrington collected approximately thirteen hundred recordings of ninety American Indian languages on fragile wax cylinders and aluminum discs. Harrington was a complex figure, but he was dedicated to languages, and he worked closely with native speakers for extended periods. For many American Indian language activists, the road to revival begins with Harrington’s archive, which is housed at the Smithsonian. Over the past twenty-five years, a new generation of linguists has followed in Harrington’s footsteps, creating the subdiscipline of language documentation and producing audio and video recordings, dictionaries, grammar manuals, and articles on an unprecedented scale, all of which feed the revitalization movement. Yet these initiatives are not without complications: Tensions between community goals and outsider or academic methods have moved many linguists to recalibrate, and much linguistic research on smaller communities is still undertaken by missionaries motivated by the dream of translating the Gospel. The gold standard is the native-speaker linguist from the community, but there are often tensions within communities, too. 

If smaller languages are to survive, they will have to do so in cities, where the majority of humanity now lives.

Globally, language revitalization is both a product and a symbol of the half-century-old “demographic revolution” occurring in indigenous communities of the United States, Canada, Brazil, and elsewhere, from the Sámi of Scandinavia to the Mapuche of Chile and western Argentina. After centuries of decimation, indigenous groups are growing at a far greater pace than the general population, due not only to high birth rates but also to changing attitudes toward these cultures, which has led more people from mixed backgrounds to proudly acknowledge their indigenous roots. Official recognition of a language—whether it’s Tamazight (Berber) in Algeria or all twenty native languages of Alaska—can be useful for a community’s perceived strength, but rising incomes, political autonomy, and principled policies are also essential to any population’s tangible gains.

Urbanization is the linchpin of linguistic maintenance and revitalization. If smaller languages are to survive, they will have to do so in cities, where the majority of humanity now lives. An estimated 50 percent of indigenous people reside in urban areas—from the Mohawk steelworkers of Brooklyn to the residents of the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis to those living in the Toba barrio in Buenos Aires—where their families may have been settled for generations, or where they may have been forced to relocate. In some countries, such as Canada, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile, the ratio is reported to be even higher. These communities often remain invisible to outsiders, and in some places, such as “the Block” in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, they are threatened again by redevelopment. Even so, in both Canada and Australia, the urban indigenous population is increasing much faster than the general urban population. New York City is home not only to the largest concentration of American Indians in the United States (at a total of 111,749 members, according to the 2010 census) but also to tens of thousands of recently arrived indigenous Latin Americans from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and elsewhere, most of them uncounted by the census. Population density usually coincides with concentrated public and private resources, which can support crosscutting alliances, such as the nonprofit Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations’ Los Angeles committee, which includes individuals from at least eight different indigenous Mexican groups, as well as members who identify as mestizo. Cities also facilitate encounters with the worlds of media and the arts, where messages can be articulated in new keys.

But if cities are crucibles for the formation of new composite identities, they are also sieves, where all but the dominant few cultures can quickly drain away. Urban spaces that foster subcultures are often destabilizing to cultures historically anchored in language, family, and land. As scholars Naama Blatman-Thomas and Libby Porter put it, cities have been “sites for expressing and actualizing colonial power,” such that indigenous people have experienced “vast symbolic dispossession, which has left them essentialized as non-urban while imposing structural limitations on their ability to assert their sovereignty in urban contexts.”3

Still, even if urban conditions discourage landownership and intergenerational settlement, there remains power in language. Forward-thinking cities around the world are enhancing efforts to accommodate mother tongues and encouraging multilingualism in schools and other institutions. (“Language access,” the legal right to translation and interpretation, has greatly improved in New York since 2008, when the local government committed to providing basic services in the city’s six most widely spoken languages.) But when it comes to smaller indigenous languages and cultures with fewer resources, the changes have been primarily symbolic. In many places, an indigenous presence is newly visible in land acknowledgments, celebrations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (replacing Columbus Day), memorial plaques, and other public events. In a few cases, city agencies—such as the New York City Department of Health, which had been developing a health initiative specifically for indigenous people—are beginning to recognize the importance of engaging with urban indigenous communities. Rare are more substantive initiatives, such as the controversial 2015 native title settlement between the Noongar Nation and the provincial government of Western Australia, which recognized traditional Noongar ownership of an area encompassing the major metropolitan region of Perth and calculated belated compensation accordingly.

The revival of a language is not only a triumph of creativity and continuity—it is also a significant step toward restitution and recovery after the five centuries of colonialism and nationalism that have led to the current linguistic extinction event. Individuals and communities should have meaningful options as to how they relate to their pasts and construct their linguistic futures. Though hundreds of the world’s endangered languages are still likely to disappear over the next century, the language revitalization movement is demonstrating that some may be able to survive, evolve, and coexist with more widely spoken languages. If one critical ingredient has been lacking in the efforts to revive indigenous cultures, languages, and communities, it is active financial and official support from majority populations. Through our institutions, foundations, schools, and governments, majority populations need to support the revitalizers, as a matter of justice. 

Ross Perlin is codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance.



1. Nicholas Evans, Dying Words (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), xviii.

2. Marianne Mithun, Introduction to The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 2.

3. Naama Blatman-Thomas and Libby Porter, “Placing Property: Theorizing the Urban from Settler Colonial Cities,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 43, no. 1 (January 2019): 30–45.