Our Language Vitality

Language Vitality Assessments

The vitality or existence of a language is based off its speakers and the strength and relevance of the language for those speakers. The foremost factor to assess the vitality of a language is its ability to pass or transmit itself to the next generation of speakers. This is what Joshua Fishman terms intergenerational continuity and maintenance when he developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale–GIDS (1991). Since 1991, language assessment tools have been promoted and developed by linguists (Krauss 1999, 2007; UNESCO 2003; Ruiz 2007; Lewis & Simons 2010, 2015; Dwyer 2011; Lee & Van Way 2016), and the most commonly applied scales have been used to make assessments of Shipibo-Konibo with differing amounts of certainty.

Summary of Our Language Vitality

The Shipibo-Konibo language has been labeled “Definitely Endangered” by UNESCO, using limited data from a 1993 census. Our findings confirm this assessment and also help us to understand why. Our language is spoken by approximately 34,152 people across 166 communities in the Peruvian Departments of Ucayali, Loreto, Madre de Dios, and Huánuco; even in Lima, where there is a Shipibo-Konibo urban community called Cantagallo. Most children grow up speaking Shipibo-Konibo in the home, and if they attend a bilingual community school, they are taught with their mother tongue through preschool (3-5 years old) and in a transitional context through primary school (6-11 years old) but shifting language trends are threatening the vitality of the language.

For decades, many Shipibo-Konibo would avoid speaking their language in public in larger cities like Pucallpa to avoid discrimination. Shipibo-Konibo radio programs have helped shatter some language barriers and stigmas, along with cumbia orchestras that sing in their mother language, which have given the language a strong platform to be shared and heard. Though nowadays the stigma associated with their language has lessened, many people still continue to fear the racism and discrimination associated with their Indigenous origins. Some parents–perhaps those who remember the harm that speaking their language brought them as children or young adults–are choosing to raise their children as Spanish monolinguals. This and other important, yet currently unidentified or undocumented, factors seem to be pushing the language on a downward endangerment trend.

If Shipibo-Konibo is losing speakers, as Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo suspects, then it would only reach level 6b–Threatened on Lewis and Simons’ (2010, 2015) EGIDS, putting it at a very critical point of language attrition. Using Fishman’s original Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale-GIDS, Shipibo-Konibo only reaches stage 7 because the institutional reinforcement of Stage 6 is not fully realized, as it seems to be caught in a push-pull with the Peruvian government and modernization. There have been advancements into higher stages of the scale with education (Stage 4), and local governmental services and local media (Stage 2) (Fishman 1991), but they too are encountering challenges for full realization.

All of these official assessments (Ethnologue, UNESCO, ELCat, and MINEDU) are based primarily off of outdated and incomplete census data from 2007 looking only at the total population. UNESCO’s model (2003) is definitely the most thorough and provides the best feedback for the vitality of a language. Such an assessment also allows one to update the scales for GIDS, EGIDS, LEI, and others, but more importantly it can give reliable direction to language maintenance and revitalization plans. Our goal is to better classify and update the language status within all possible environments of use and examine language ideologies that could support or provide challenges and may require Language Ideological Clarification (LIC) as proposed by Dauenhauer & Dauenhauer (1998) and Kroskrity (2015).

Due to the constant evolving nature of language endangerment, language and ideological assessments require periodic updating. The uncertainty and outdatedness of previous assessments point out the need for a better understanding of Shipibo-Konibo’s endangerment risks. The Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo team was born out of the need to organize a community-based language assessment and revitalization team of linguists, educators, cultural knowledge holders, and authorities to understand the drivers and extent of language shift, and promote viable and appropriate activities to raise the status of the language and reclaim lost language environments.

For on-going assessments, Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo is using the UNESCO model as a template while taking into consideration the constructive observations of others like ELCat (Lee & Van Way 2016). Parameters for periodic language assessment updates need to be defined to monitor the status into the future, however, our current assessment is providing critically necessary information for on-going and future documentation, maintenance, and regeneration efforts. Now is the time to address this as current trends demonstrate attrition and could cause the language to become dormant in as little as two generations; and even faster within homes and communities located in urban centers.

The following is a list of the GIDS, UNESCO 9-Factors, Expanded GIDS–EGIDS, and Language Endangerment Index–LEI assessment models with the assessment of Shipibo-Konibo according to the developers of the tool. For most models, Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo’s assessments completed in June of 2019 are also included.

Fishman’s GIDS (1991)

Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo assessment: 7 on a scale of 1-Safe to 8-Critically Endangered

6: “The language is used orally by all generations and being learned by children as their first language” 7: “The child-bearing generation know the language well enough to use it with their elders but is not transmitting it to their children” (Fishman 1991).

Today there are growing numbers of new parents who are not transmitting or fully transmitting the language to their children. What is being observed is that many of the children, especially in urban settings, are becoming passively fluent. This means that children learn to hear the language fluently, but do not speak it enough to reach spoken fluency. If this remains, the next generation of children will grow up in households where little to no exposure to the language will take place.

UNESCO’s 9-Factors (2003)

UNESCO assessment: Definitely Endangered, 16,085 speakers; outdated and incomplete data.

Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo assessment: Definitely Endangered, 34,152 potential speakers (INEI 2018).

UNESCO’s assessment uses a scale of 5 to 0 (5: Safe, 4: Unsafe, 3: Definitely Endangered, 2: Severely Endangered, 1: Critically Endangered, 0: Extinct), but does not detail factor trends. Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo has included their own; arrows indicate improving (↑) and worsening (↓) trends.

Factor 1: Intergenerational Language Transmission (3.5)↓

Factor 2. Absolute Number of Speakers (34,152)↓

Factor 3. Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population (4)↓

Factor 4. Trends in Existing Language Domains (3.5)↓

Factor 5. Response to New Domains and Media (2)↓

Factor 6. Materials for Language Education and Literacy (2.25)↑

Factor 7. Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies, Including Official Status and Use (3.5)↑

Factor 8. Community Members’ Attitudes toward Their Own Language (3)↕

Factor 9. Amount and Quality of Documentation (2.5)↑

The average scaled factors; 24.75/8 = (3.09), which falls in line with the assessment of Definitely Endangered. However, UNESCO discourages simple addition and each factor should be used as a guide for future language activities.

In A. M. Dwyer’s review of the UNESCO model (2011) she states that “the UNESCO group recommends that language assessors consider weighting the factors. (If languages are being compared, the factors of all languages in a given survey should have the same weighting in order to be comparable.) For example, many language assessors would agree that Factors 1 (intergenerational transmission), 3 (proportion of speakers within the total population), & 4 (language domains) are critically important, and may want to assign them a greater weight than language attitudes and documentation (Factors 7, 8, and 9)” (Ibid.:8).

For Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo’s assessment we have given all factors equal weight but added future outlooks as: trending up (↑) or trending down (↓). Most of the factors are trending downwards, but there are symbolic gains in Factor 7, which help support new gains in documentation and education materials (Factors 6 and 9). Community attitudes (Factor 8) can go both ways (↕) as can be seen in the urban community of Cantagallo in Lima, Peru (Sánchez et al. 2018). However, it has been noted by members of Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo that language attitudes shift significantly in a positive direction once a discussion of the language has been initiated. A potential reason for this may come from the challenging economic and subsistence conditions found amongst most Shipibo-Konibo, who simply do not have the time and energy to reflect upon their language like most other people in the modernized world. This also demonstrates the power and need for raising awareness of the language, its threats, and its potential to promote well-being.

Lewis & Simons’ Extended GIDS–EGIDS (2010)

Ethnologue assessment: Overall Development Verses Endangerment: 5Developing.The language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable” (Lewis & Simons 2010); from outdated sources.

Official Recognition: Recognized language. “There is a law that names this language and recognizes its right to be used and developed for some purposes” (Lewis, Simons, & Fannig 2015).

Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo assessment: 6b –Threatened. The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users” (Ibid.). Our assessment matches the description created by Dwyer (2011). “The language is used orally by all generations but only some of the childbearing generation are transmitting it to their children” (Ibid.).

Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) Language Endangerment Index–LEI (2016)

ELCat assessment: Vulnerable, 20% Certainty, scale grades not detailed, 20% certainly means that they only take one factor into account, and it appears to be the absolute number of speakers.

Non Jói Kóshi Ákaibo assessment: Threatened, 100% Certainty; detailed below.

  • Scale of intergenerational transmission (IT): 0.5 (0-Safe: “All members of the community, including children, speak the language.” 1-Vulnerable: “Most adults and some children speakers.”
  • Scale of absolute number of speakers (ANS): 1 (1-Vulnerable: “10,000-99,999 speakers.”)
  • Scale of speaker number trends (SNT): 1.5 ( 2-Threatened: “A majority of community members speak the language. Speaker numbers are gradually decreasing.” 1-Vulnerable: “Most members of the community speak the language. Speaker numbers may be decreasing, but very slowly.”)
  • Scale of domains of use (DOU): 2 (2-Threatened: “Used in some nonofficial domains along with other languages, and remains the primary language of use in the home for many community members.”)

Level of Endangerment Calculation:
(IT: 0.5 x 2 = 1) + (ANS: 1) + (SNT: 1.5) + (DOU: 2 = 5.5)
(Total: 5.5/25 = 0.22) x 100 = 22% Threatened: 100% certain, based on evidence available.

LEI developers Lee and Van Way (2016) criticize the UNESCO framework for not defining the number of speakers when assessing the absolute number of speakers, however the LEI uses vague language to assess intergenerational transmission and the scale of speaker trend numbers. “All” children are speakers and “Some” children are speakers determines a “Safe” or “Vulnerable” rating, leading us to select vulnerable because most children are speakers, but not all. Then, what is the difference between “majority” and “most”, 51% and 75%, 85% or 95%? Also, the difference between “numbers are gradually decreasing” and “numbers may be decreasing, but very slowly” is again too ambiguous and should be better defined to represent the seriousness of language loss and usefulness of a proper language vitality assessment.

Peruvian Ministry of Education’s unknown assessment (2013)

Ministerio de Educación-MINEDU, ‘Ministry of Education’ & Dirección General de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe y Rural-DIGEIBIR, ‘General Direction of Intercultural Bilingual and Rural Education’ assessment: Vital“Are spoken by all generations of the language community, whose intergenerational transmission is interrupted. Furthermore, the languages in this state are spoken in the majority of language environments” (MINEDU-DIGEIBIR 2013, 52). “Shipibo could be found to be endangered in urban zones like Yarinacocha and Pucallpa” (Ibid.:55).

This assessment appears to be based off of Lewis & Simons’ EGIDS with a focus on the level of disruption of intergenerational transmission and language environments. A positive upshot of this report is that the MINEDU and the DIGEIBIR state that “again it is evident the need for a census” (Ibid.:64). This is clearly evidenced in the census data for Shipibo-Konibo.

Our Need for Our Own Census

A new national census took place in 2017 and for the first time included a question about ethnic self-identification (INEI 2018). The results of total speakers, according to those who identified Shipibo-Konibo as the language they first learned to speak was 34,152, and those who self-identify as ethnically Shipibo-Konibo was 25,222 (Ibid.).

According to the census of 2007, “Total Speakers” of Shipibo-Konibo only in the Department of Ucayali is 45,551 (MINEDU-DIGEIBIR 2013, 69). While the total number of speakers shows a decrease of 11,399 or 25%, the total population of Shipibo-Konibo increased 2,705 since 2007. The current census of 2017 demonstrates a difference of 8,930 who claim to have learned Shipibo-Konibo as their first language but did not self-identify as Shipibo-Konibo.

There are a number of potential reasons this difference exists, and these figures are according to the national Peruvian census, and not according to our own nation. This leads us to call for a clearer census by our nation, for our nation.