The Analyzation of the Language Revitalisation Techniques on the Ryūkyū Islands from a Multidisciplinary Perspective



Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary


I started my research in 2011, during a yearlong scholarship at Josai Kokusai University (Tōgane, Chiba). I was examining the language use and code switch of university students of Okinawan origin, and the language shift of the younger generations toward standard Japanese, especially if they were settled outside the Ryūkyū Islands. I found that the scale of the language shift is drastic and almost completed among young adults, making the Ryūkyū languages vulnerable to slip into language death. During the following years I gradually switched my focus to the endangerment of the Ryūkyūan languages and their revitalisation, and currently I am working on an analytic framework to evaluate the ongoing language revitalisation activities on the Ryūkyūan islands.

There are several indigenous language varieties on the Ryūkyū Island, however none of them have been acknowledged by the Japanese government, even though they are not intelligible for Japanese speakers, and most of the language community (active and passive speakers) considers them as languages. There are different classifications for the language varieties, but there is a general agreement that the local languages together with the Japanese language make up the Japonic language family. They have two sub-branches of Northern and Southern Ryūkyūan languages. I follow the UNESCO (2017) classification of six independent languages in use on the islands and these are: Amamai, Kunigami, Okinawan, Miyakō Yaeyaman and Yonaguni languages.

UNESCO (2017) declared all the Ryūkyūan languages endangered on different levels. According to the GIDS[1] scale of Fishman (1991, pp. 87-109) they reach up to level 7: language owners are socially integrated and ethnolinguistically active, but beyond child-bearing age. Although we do not have any statistics about the number of the active speakers, passive language owners or the level of the language use, we can estimate the altogether number of the language owners does not reach 1,5 million (Pellard and Shimoji, 2010, p.10).

Language death is a natural phenomenon; however, it is not inevitable. If the community decide to save their language, the language shift can be reserved even if there are no language owners left, as long as the language variety in question has been documented. We call this conscious reverse language shift language revitalisation or language revival (Gál, 2009). There are several successful examples of reverse language shift of endangered languages, such as modern Hebrew, Maori or Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic). In all cases the language community itself decided to save their languages  as  part of a wider cultural reclamation movement where the language was one of the key elements of the cultural identity of the communities in question.

There is an ongoing cultural awakening or reclamation on the Ryūkyū Island as well, which also created a need to the revival of the local languages. Heinrich (2005, 2011, 2012, 2015) was among the first to describe the language endangerment, documentation and revival activities on the islands. Following his work, and based on my own research, I tried to collect and monitor the language revitalisation activities on the Ryūkyū Islands from 2011. I conducted a self-founded fieldwork in 2016 to observe the different revitalisation programs in action and the language use and attitude of the participants and of the passive speakers. I interviewed activists, teachers and language owners about the role of the indigenous languages in the Ryūkyūan cultural community and the attitude towards the different varieties.

In my doctoral thesis I try to create a frame for the analyses of the language revitalisation activities, based on the success of the language transmission and the incorporation of language use in to the daily life of the linguistic community following methods and approaches of sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology. In my dissertation I focus only on the language transmission techniques, since I already introduced the revitalisation movement on a macro level according to Zuckermann’s Diamond model in my master thesis. I intend to categorise the ongoing language transmission programs following Tsunoda (2006), who described the techniques of different language revival programs. Although, there will be some differences, since the techniques – whether they are conscious choice of the activists or spontaneous language transmissions – have to be shaped to the socio-political environment of the language community.

Generally speaking, my goal is to give a detailed and (as much as possible) neutral picture of the language reclamation process on the islands, keeping in mind and respect the fact, that the language revitalisation is the choice of the community, and it depends entirely on the decision and will of the upcoming generations.

Your comments or suggestions regarding my research would be more than appreciated. I also hope that this report can be a good opportunity to get in touch with JAWS members with similar interests as well as to discuss possible future projects.



Fishman, J., 1991. Reversing Language Shift – Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistence to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Gál N., 2009. ‘Veszélyeztetett nyelvek és nyelvfejlesztés’ [Endangered Languages and Language Development]. Korunk, 20. [viewed 13 May 2019]. Available from:

Heinrich, P., 2005. What Leaves a Mark Should No Longer Stain – Progressive Erasure and Reversing Language Shift Activities in the Ryukyu Islands. In: SICRI, 1st International Small Islands Cultures Conference. Kagoshima, Kagoshima University Centre for the Pacific Islands, pp. 61–72.

Heinrich, P., 2011. Language Choices at Naha Airport. Japanese Studies. 3, pp. 342–358.

Heinrich, P., 2012. The Making of Monolingual Japan: Language Ideology and Japanese Modernity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Heinrich, P., 2015. Don’t Leave the Ryukyuan Languages Alone – A Roadmap for Ryukyuan Language Revitalization. In: Anderson, M., Heinrich, P., eds. Language Crisis in the Ryukyus. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, pp. 295–321.

Pellard, T., Shimoji, M., 2010. An Introduction to Ryukyuan Languages. Tokyo: ILCAA.

Tsunoda, T., 2006. Language Endangerment and Language Revitalisation. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

UNESCO, 2017. Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. [viewed 13 May 2019].

Available from:

Zuckermann, G., 2016. Language Revival Diamond Model. [viewed 26 January 2016]. Available from:


[1] Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale: 0 =no trace of vulnerability, 8= the only language owners are isolated old speakers (language death).