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Reviving Lost Words: Language Shift and Revitalization



What causes languages to fade away, and what can be done to revitalize a language when speakers don't adopt it or use it less and less over time? Esperanto, a language created by L.L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century, was designed to be easy to learn and culturally appealing to people worldwide. Despite its promising potential, Esperanto failed to gain widespread adoption due to factors such as limited practical use and competition from established languages.¹,⁷ This decline raises questions about what causes languages to fade away and what can be done to revitalize them.




Language loss is not unique to Esperanto, though – it also occurs in individuals, such as early language learners who seem to lose language skills or augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) device users who abandon their devices. When a communication approach struggles to gain traction within a social setting, its usefulness and ability to serve meaningful functions within a community become paramount. If speech and language fail to solve social problems or convey wants and needs effectively, actions, gestures, and behaviors may replace them.


Fortunately, language revitalization is possible, as demonstrated by the Māori language in New Zealand. The Māori language faced significant decline by the mid-20th century due to colonial policies and societal changes that favored English. However, efforts to revitalize the language began in the 1980s, and initiatives included the following highly effective interventions:


Language Nests – these early childhood education programs immersed young children in the Māori language. Fluent speakers, often community elders, provided a rich linguistic environment, ensuring children learn the language from a young age.


Language-immersion Schools – these schools offered primary and secondary education entirely in Māori, promoting fluency and literacy.


Community-based Programs – using multi-modal approaches to teach adults Māori, these programs emphasized communication and comprehension, ensuring that language skills developed and generalized across all ages.


These strategies have successfully preserved and promoted Māori, ensuring its continued use.¹¹ The success of these initiatives highlights the importance of creating immersive, language-rich environments and engaging learners of all ages in meaningful interactions.




Similarly, for autistic children, language development can sometimes take unexpected detours, including temporary regression in language skills.⁶ While concerning, this does not necessarily predict long-term communication difficulties, as many autistic children who experience language regression can go on to develop effective communication skills – especially those who receive evidence-based early-intervention services.⁴,⁸


Language utility, or the usefulness of language in a social environment, plays a significant role in what children and speakers learn to say. Michael Tomasello's usage-based theory of language acquisition suggests that children learn language through meaningful social interactions and by focusing on the most frequently used linguistic structures that they hear spoken around them.¹² This theory aligns with many of the principles behind the success of language revitalization efforts, which emphasize the importance of creating contexts in which the language serves a meaningful purpose.


Recent research on language acquisition and the development of large language models (LLMs) further supports Tomasello's usage-based theory.¹,⁵ LLMs, like children, learn language through exposure to diverse language data and by recognizing patterns in context, rather than by memorizing individual words. This learning process is similar to gestalt language acquisition in autistic children, who often learn language in meaningful chunks, or collections of words and phrases.⁹


Autistic children using gestalt language infuse familiar phrases with personal significance, much like poets weaving together references to create layered meanings. Understanding these phrases within their social context is crucial, as isolated words or phrases can lack meaning and hinder communication. To support autistic children through language regression, caregivers and professionals can draw inspiration from the strategies used in language revitalization efforts.


Creating language-rich environments that embed meaningful written language, engaging in responsive interactions, and using technology that encourages language-based communication⁶ are strategies that mirror the community-driven approaches used in Māori language revitalization. Incorporating visual supports, such as pictures paired with text in the environment, can enhance communication and understanding, particularly for autistic children who may rely on gestalt language or have difficulty with spoken expression.²,⁹


It's also important that communication supports like picture-based icons or AAC devices are simple and easy to use. If these tools are too complicated, they can create delays, discourage, interfere with, or shift communication away from social language use – following the way of Esperanto. Providing opportunities for meaningful interaction, along with these supportive strategies, can foster an environment that values different forms of communication, recognizing that language thrives when it serves a purpose and is valued by a community, whether that's a community in a home or a country.




By recognizing the unique utility of gestalt language and drawing inspiration from successful language revitalization efforts, we can create a world where each child's inner voice is nurtured and understood, ensuring that no individual's language is lost or devalued.



Matthew is a speech-language pathologist and literacy specialist with over 25 years of experience. speech-language pathologist, he is also an autism specialist, an assistive technology specialist, a researcher, and a professional drummer. He has applied his extensive background in linguistics, skill development, music-related neuroscience, communication theory, and language acquisition to co-develop numerous communication apps for people with autism in collaboration with Microsoft, Snap, and Epic Games. 


He has also been the co-private investigator on three prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grants funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. As a publisher of Autism Digest, Matthew is excited to share cutting-edge research, intervention strategies, and other autism-related information with families in collaboration with the prestigious India Autism Center. 


References

1. Brown, T. B., Mann, B., Ryder, N., Subbiah, M., Kaplan, J., Dhariwal, P., ... & Amodei, D. (2020). Language models are few-shot learners. arXiv preprint arXiv:2005.14165.


2. Featherstone, S. (2024). Text-Only Prompts for Autistic Children Result in Power and Ease in Early Communication. Autism Digest, February 2024 – April 2024 issue, pp. 24-25.


3. Fridman, L. (2023). Edward Gibson: Human Language, Psycholinguistics, Syntax, Grammar & LLMs | Lex Fridman Podcast #426. https://lexfridman.com/edward-gibson/


4. Goin-Kochel, R. P., Esler, A. N., Kanne, S. M., & Hus, V. (2014). Developmental regression among children with autism spectrum disorder: Onset, duration, and effects on functional outcomes. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8(7), 890-898.


5. Goldberg, A. E. (2019). Explain me this: Creativity, competition, and the partial productivity of constructions. Princeton University Press.


6. Haydock, A., Harrison, L., Baldwin, K., & Leadbitter, K. (2024). Embracing gestalt language development as a fundamental neurodiversity-affirmative practice. Autism, 28(5), 1055-1059.


7. Okrent, A. (2009). In the land of invented languages: Esperanto rock stars, Klingon poets, Loglan lovers, and the mad dreamers who tried to build a perfect language. Spiegel & Grau.


8. Pickles, A., Simonoff, E., Conti-Ramsden, G., Falcaro, M., Simkin, Z., Charman, T., ... & Baird, G. (2009). Loss of language in early development of autism and specific language impairment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(7), 843-852.

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