Sulawesi Language Alliance

Championing Local Languages in the Heart of Indonesia

UNESCO Endangerment Status Ratings

UNESCO endangerment status ratings are a way to evaluate languages with respect to their degree of endangerment and urgency for documentation. Taken together, the several factors identified by UNESCO (see below) are useful for characterizing a language’s overall sociolinguistic situation.  No single factor alone should be used to assess a language’s vitality, because a language which rates high in one area may still need attention because of other factors.

To the extent possible, the ratings which are reported for Sulawesi languages are intended to apply to the language as a whole—or perhaps better said, to the principal or homeland area of a language, ignoring communities which may have settled outside of this area. Even so, this approach runs the risk of masking significant differences between communities within the homeland area, for example when a language is robust in some villages even while it is in serious decline in others.

The original rating system, as expressed in Language Vitality and Endangerment (2003) by the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, comprised nine factors: six for assessing language vitality; two for assessing language attitutudes; and one factor for assessing the need for documenation. In a 2009 questionnaire, titled UNESCO Survey: Linguistic Vitality and Diversity, the number of factors was increased to twelve, and it is these twelve which will be reported for Sulawesi languages.

Of these twelve factors, one (Absolute Number of Fully Competent Speakers) reports a whole number. The other eleven factors employ a 5 to 0 scale (the lower the number, the more endangered the language). For each numerical grade, an accompanying prose statement explains how that grade is merited. Besides the prose statement, each numerical grade is also encapsulated in a succinct, one- or two-word tag, such as ‘Safe,’ ‘Vulnerable,’ ‘Definitely Endangered,’ etc. The numerical grades, tags, and prose statements are set out in the following tables. Each table corresponds to a different evaluative factor.

In addition, each value which is assigned to a factor (from 5 to 0) is itself rated for how reliable that estimate is. For example, an estimate based on recent, in-depth field work is likely to be highly reliable. At other times, an estimate may simply be a  ‘best guess’  based on general knowledge about an area. More about reliability ratings can be found here.

1. Overall vitality / endangerment

5 Safe The language is safe.
4 Vulnerable The language is unsafe/vulnerable.
3 Definitely Endangered The language is definitely endangered.
2 Severely Endangered The language is severely endangered.
1 Critically Endangered The language is critically endangered.
0 Extinct The language is extinct.
? Unknown  

2. Generational language use

5 Safe The language is spoken by all generations. The intergenerational transmission of the language is uninterrupted.
4 Vulnerable Most, but not all, children or families of a particular community speak their parental language as their first language, but this may be restricted to specific social domains (such as the home where children interact with their parents and grandparents).
3 Definitely Endangered The language is no longer being learned as the mother tongue by children in the home. The youngest speakers are thus of the parental generation. At this stage, parents may still speak their language to their children, but their children do not typically respond in the language.
2 Severely Endangered The language is spoken only by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may still understand the language, they typically do not speak it to their children, or among themselves.
1 Critically Endangered The youngest speakers are in the great-grandparental generation, and the language is not used for everyday interactions. These older people often remember only part of the language but do not use it on a regular basis, since there are few people left to speak with.
0 Extinct There is no one who can speak or remember the language.
? Unknown  

3. Absolute number of fully competent speakers

A small speech community is always at risk. A small population is much more vulnerable to decimation (by disease, warfare, or natural disaster, for example) than a larger one. A small language group may also easily merge with a neighboring group, giving up its own language and culture.

4. Proportion of speakers within the reference community

5 Safe All speak the language.
4 Vulnerable Nearly all speak the language.
3 Definitely Endangered A majority speak the language.
2 Severely Endangered A minority speak the language.
1 Critically Endangered Very few speak the language.
0 Extinct None speak the language.
? Unknown  

5. Shifts in domains of language use

5 Universal Use The language of the ethnolinguistic group is actively used in all discourse domains for all purposes.
4 Multilingual Parity One or more dominant languages, rather than the language of the ethnolinguistic group, is/are the primary language(s) in most official domains: government, public offices, and educational institutions. The language in question, however, may well continue to be integral to a number of public domains, especially in traditional religious institutions or practices, local stores, and places where members of the community socialize. The coexistence of the dominant and non-dominant languages results in speakers using each language for different functions (diglossia), whereby the non-dominant language is used in informal and home contexts and the dominant language is used in official and public contexts. Speakers may consider the dominant language to be the language of social and economic opportunity. However, older members of the community may continue to use only their ancestral language. Note that multilingualism, common throughout the world, does not necessarily lead to language loss.
3 Dwindling Domains The non-dominant language loses ground and, at home, parents begin to use the dominant language in their everyday interactions with their children; children become ‘semi-speakers’ of their own language (‘receptive bilinguals’). Parents and older members of the community tend to be productively bilingual in the dominant and the indigenous language: they
2 Limited or Formal Domains The ancestral language may still be used at community centres, at festivals and at ceremonial occasions where older members of the community have a chance to meet. The limited domain may also include homes where grandparents and other older extended family members reside. Many people can understand the language but cannot speak it.
1 Highly Limited Domains The ancestral language is used in very restricted do-mains on special occasions, usually by very few individuals: for example, by ritual leaders on ceremonial occasions. Some other individuals may remember at least some of the language (‘rememberers’).
0 Extinct The language is not spoken at any place at any time.
? Unknown  

6. Response to new domains, including broadcast media and the internet

5 Dynamic The language is used in all new domains.
4 Robust/Active The language is used in most new domains.
3 Receptive The language is used in many domains.
2 Coping The language is used in some new domains.
1 Minimal The language is used in only a few new domains.
0 Inactive The language is not used in any new domains.
? Unknown  

7. Domains of traditional knowledge

5 Frequently The language is frequently used for conveying traditional knowledge.
4 Sometimes The language is sometimes used for conveying traditional knowledge.
3 Rarely The language is rarely used for conveying traditional knowledge.
2 Never The language is never used for conveying traditional knowledge.
1 Other Language Traditional knowledge is conveyed using another language.
0 Rarely Conveyed Traditional knowledge is rarely conveyed in any language.
? Unknown  

8. Materials for language education and literacy

5 Established Tradition There is an established orthography and literacy tradition with fiction and non-fiction and everyday media. The language is used in administration and education.
4 Established Program Written materials exist and at school children are developing literacy in the language. The language is not used in written form in the administration.
3 Broad Exposure Written materials exist and children may be exposed to the written form at school. Literacy is not promoted through print media.
2 Limited Exposure Written materials exist but they may be useful only for some members of the community; for others, they may have a symbolic significance. Literacy education in the language is not a part of the school curriculum.
1 Minimal Development A practical orthography is known to the community and some material is being written.
0 No Literacy No orthography is available to the community.
? Unknown  

9. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies

5 Equal Support All of a country’s languages are valued as assets. All languages are protected by law, and the government encourages the maintenance of all languages by implementing explicit policies.
4 Differentiated Support Non-dominant languages are explicitly protected by the government, but there are clear differences in the contexts in which the dominant/official language(s) and non-dominant (protected) language(s) are used. The government encourages ethnolinguistic groups to maintain and use their languages, most often in private domains rather than in public domains. Some of the domains of non-dominant language use enjoy high prestige (for example, ceremonial occasions).
3 Passive Assimilation The central authorities are indifferent as to whether or not minority languages are spoken, as long as the dominant language is the language of interaction in public space. The dominant group’s language is de facto the official language. The non-dominant languages do not enjoy high prestige.
2 Active Assimilation The government encourages minority groups to abandon their own languages by providing education for the minority group members in the dominant language only. Speaking and/or writing non-dominant languages is not encouraged.
1 Forced Assimilation The government has an explicit language policy supporting the dominant language while the non-dominant languages are neither recognized nor supported.
0 Prohibition Minority languages are prohibited from use in any public domain. Minority languages may be tolerated in private domains.
? Unknown  

10. Community members’ attitudes toward their own language

5 Valued by All All members value their language and wish to see it promoted.
4 Valued by Most Most members support language maintenance.
3 Valued by Many Many members support language maintenance; many others are indifferent or may even support language shift.
2 Vauled by Some Some members support language maintenance; some are indifferent or may even support language shift.
1 Valued by Few Only a few members support language maintenance; many are indifferent or support language shift.
0 No Concern No one cares if the language is given up; all prefer to use a dominant language.
? Unknown  

11. Type and quality of documentation

5 Superlative There are comprehensive grammars and dictionaries, extensive texts and a constant flow of language materials. Abundant annotated, high-quality audio and video recordings exist.
4 Good There is at least one good grammar, a few dictionaries, texts, literature, and everyday media; adequate annotated high-quality audio and video recordings.
3 Fair There may be an adequate grammar, some dictionaries, and texts, but no everyday media; audio and video recordings may exist in varying quality or degree of annotation.
2 Fragmentary There are some grammatical sketches, wordlists, and texts useful for limited linguistic research but with inadequate coverage. Audio and video recordings may exist in varying quality, with or without any annotation.
1 Inadequate Only a few grammatical sketches, short wordlists, and fragmentary texts exist. Audio and video recordings do not exist, are of unusable quality, or are completely unannotated.
0 Undocumented No documentary material exists.
? Unknown  

12. Status of language conservation programs

5 Successful A regular and successful program is running involving >5 per cent of the community.
4 Good A program is running with two of the following characteristics: regular; successful; involving >5 per cent of the community.
3 Fair A program is running with one of the following characteristics: regular; successful; involving >5 per cent of the community.
2 Irregular A program is running involving <5 per cent of the community, irregularly and with few or no outcomes.
1 Aspiring No language programs but some community members are talking of starting one.
0 None No language program and no interest in starting one.
? Unknown  


UNESCO. 2003. Language vitality and endangerment. Report approved by the participants of the International Expert Meeting on the UNESCO Programme Safeguarding of Endangered Language, Paris, 10–12 March 2003, 23 pp. Online. URL: Accessed 26 October 2010. 

UNESCO. 2009. Survey: Linguistic vitality and diversity, version 20090209. 12 pp. Online. URL: Accessed 26 October 2010. 

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