Extinction is currently threatening to many languages and even more languages simply don’t exist anymore. While it’s sad to know that some languages are no longer being passed down from one generation to the next, there are also happier stories. The ones that were saved after the number of speakers had decreased dramatically to a point of (near) extinction.
One example of such a lucky language is Hawaiian. While the US is a country built on immigration where many languages besides English are still spoken as a first or second language, Hawaii is the only US state with two official languages. Hawaiian was Hawaii’s official language long before the island nation became part of the United States of America. The number of native speakers decreased dramatically about a century before joining the US as their 50th state. A law was passed in the late 19th century that declared English the only language that should be taught in schools. Since the middle of the 20th century however, Hawaiian has received increased attention and is once again widely spoken throughout the state. At its worst, Hawaiian was spoken by less than 0.1% of the population. While today there are more than 20,000 people who speak it at native speaker level.
The most famous example of language revitalisation in Europe is Irish. After nearing the point of extinction in the early 19th century, it has been revived for many reasons, political ones among them. An independent Ireland needs its own language and can’t speak English while emancipating itself from England. Though Irish is now being taught as a compulsory language in schools across Ireland, the language owes its revival to community activism. Independent schools started treating Irish as their first language rather than as a school subject, and the community did the rest. There is now a large community of Irish speakers who created a network which supports Irish-speaking media and television.
Another revived language in Europe is Cornwaii. Until the late 18th century the language community in Cornwall, United Kingdom, used it. After that it started to disappear and only very few people could speak it in the early 20th century. In 1904 the Celtic revival programme was launched. Literature pieces that were saved from Medieval and Tudor times helped to revive Cornish and also to recreate a standard written form of it. Now the number of Cornish speakers is in the thousands and continues to grow constantly. The language is now taught in some schools.
There is an even more extreme example. While handful of people always spoke Hawaiian, Irish and Corwaii, Hebrew was extinct and counted as a “dead language”. Nobody spoke the language anymore. While it was still a sacred written language, no native speakers were raised to speak it. Hebrew was revived from extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. A new generation of native speakers was created without any pre-existing native speakers of Hebrew.