ASSESSING ENDANGERMENT: EXPANDING FISHMAN'S GIDS
M. Paul Lewis and Gary F. Simons
7500 W. Camp Wisdom Rd.
Dallas, TX 75236
A paper submitted September 2009 to the Revue Roumaine de Linguistique for the special issue
on endangered languages. Publication: http://www.lingv.ro/resources/scm_images/RRL-02-2010-Lewis.pdf
M. Paul Lewis is the Editor of Ethnologue: Languages of the World. He did fieldwork in
Guatemala, Central America from 1975 until 1996. He was the International Sociolinguistics
Coordinator for SIL International from 1996 to 2003 and again from 2007 – 2009. He holds the
Ph.D. in Linguistics with a concentration in sociolinguistics from Georgetown University.
Gary F. Simons is Associate International Director of Language Program Services for SIL
International, and Executive Editor of Ethnologue: Languages of the World. He has done
fieldwork in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and is co-founder of the Open
Language Archives Community (OLAC). He holds the PhD. in Linguistics from Cornell
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 2
Fishman's 8-level Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) has served as the seminal
and best-known evaluative framework of language endangerment for nearly two decades. It has
provided the theoretical underpinnings for most practitioners of language revitalization. More
recently, UNESCO has developed a 6-level scale of endangerment. Ethnologue uses yet another
set of five categories to characterize language vitality. In this paper, these three evaluative
systems are aligned to form an amplified and elaborated evaluative scale of 13 levels, the
E(xpanded) GIDS. Any known language, including those languages for which there are no
longer speakers, can be categorized by using the resulting scale (unlike the GIDS). A language
can be evaluated in terms of the EGIDS by answering five key questions regarding the identity
function, vehicularity, state of intergenerational language transmission, literacy acquisition
status, and a societal profile of generational language use. With only minor modification the
EGIDS can also be applied to languages which are being revitalized.
ASSESSING ENDANGERMENT: MAXIMIZING FISHMAN'S GIDS
M. Paul Lewis and Gary F. Simons
7500 W. Camp Wisdom Rd.
Dallas, TX 75236
Language shift and death have long been a topic of discussion among sociolinguists, linguists,
language planners, educators, and others. The result has been an extensive literature about the
causes, processes, symptoms, and results of language loss and death (Denison 1977; Dorian
1977, 1980, 1981, 1987, 1989; Gal 1978; Skutnabb-Kangas 2000).
Joshua Fishman developed many of the major sociolinguistic concepts that inform our
understanding of language use in society. Reversing Language Shift (Fishman 1991) represents
the culmination of much of that work and is perhaps best known for the introduction of the
Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS).
Following the call from Krauss (1992) and others, nascent efforts at language
maintenance and language revitalization were redoubled, particularly in North America. A
variety of innovative approaches, including community-based language development and
maintenance projects, have been implemented in an effort to stem the tide of language loss.
Though some gainsay Krauss's prediction of massive language loss by the end of the current
century, no credible arguments to the contrary have been forthcoming and the pace of language
shift and death appears to be growing.
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 4
The current edition of the Ethnologue (Lewis 2009) is the first in the more-than-50 year
history of that publication in which the number of identified living languages has gone down.
While many languages were newly identified in the most recent edition, a total of 91 were for the
first time recorded as having no known remaining speakers. (Lewis 2009). We cannot conclude
that this many languages have gone out of use in the four years since the previous edition since
there is always a lag time in the reporting of data. Nevertheless, the number is sobering. Of the
6,909 living languages now listed in Ethnologue, 457 are identified as Nearly Extinct, a category
which represents a severe level of endangerment. Less serious levels of endangerment are not
currently distinguished in the Ethnologue. If small speaker population alone were taken as an
indicator of language endangerment, the current worldwide count of languages with fewer than
10,000 speakers is 3,524 which amounts to just over 50% of the identified living languages in the
Subsequent to the publication of Fishman's GIDS, other metrics for assessing the factors
contributing to endangerment and vitality have been proposed (Brenzinger et al. 2003; Lewis
2008) yet the GIDS remains the foundational conceptual model for assessing the status of
language vitality. In addition, Ethnologue has long used yet another scheme to categorize the
language vitality status for each language it reports on.
Ten years after the publication of his initial volume on Reversing Language Shift,
Fishman noted that within the ranks of Reversing Language Shift theory and practice to that
…a noticeably under-represented focus is that of applied
directions, priorities, and emphases. Actually, what seems to be
most needed is a theoretically grounded thrust, derived from
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 5
familiarity with a large number of cases of efforts on behalf of
threatened languages in all parts of the world (therefore including
experiences of developed, now developing and still little developed
contexts)… (Fishman 2001).
In this paper we attempt to respond to that call by proposing an elaboration of the GIDS based on
insights garnered from the extensive experience of the authors' host institution (SIL
International) as reported in Ethnologue and by incorporating features of the subsequent and
alternative approach to evaluation of endangerment developed by UNESCO.
Fishman's Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS)
Fishman's GIDS focuses on the key role of intergenerational transmission in the maintenance of
a language. If children do not learn a language from their parents, there is little possibility that
they in turn will be able to pass the language on to their children. The GIDS not only takes into
account that intergenerational transmission is an individual decision made by parents, but also
that societal and institutional choices are crucial in influencing the parental decisions regarding
their language behavior in regard to their children. These societal factors create social spaces in
which languages are used. These social spaces are what Fishman and others have identified as
“domains of use”, each constituting a constellation of participants, location, and topic that is
closely associated with a particular language. That choice of language becomes sedimented over
time as a social norm, so that the use of a particular language in a particular participant-location-
topic context comes to be expected. If these norms of use begin to erode, language shift will
begin as the language loses domains in which it is found to be useful and in which its use is
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 6
As the number of domains associated with a language begins to diminish (that is, as the
language loses uses), parents may decide that the language is a less valuable resource for their
children than another language, and so the language begins to lose users as well. The GIDS
provides a means of evaluating where a language is on this scale of disruption from full use by
many users to no use by any users. Table 1 provides a summary of the GIDS in a way that
recasts the definition of the levels more explicitly in terms of domains and salient language use
Table 1 goes about here
From the perspective of assessing the status and vitality of languages, the GIDS is
focused on the level of disruption more than on the level of maintenance. It can be read from top
to bottom with analysts starting at the level of least disruption on the scale (Level 1), and reading
down until they find the level of disruption that characterizes the situation that they are
examining. Generally, the trend is that the trajectory of minoritized language communities is
downwards on the scale and the descriptions of each stage are framed in terms of the loss of uses
(functions, domains) and users. Fishman points out that the majority of minoritized communities
are at Level 6, and since the focus of revitalization and maintenance efforts is to strengthen the
status of the language, one could conclude there are 5 levels above that to be worked through in
order to reach the safest status at Level 1. But the result is that this implied agenda for minority
language revitalizers is virtually impossible, well beyond the reach of most language
communities even with outside assistance.
While the GIDS, at its introduction almost two decades ago, provided new insights into
the dynamics of language shift and its reversal, several shortcomings have become apparent as it
has been applied in the context of efforts for language preservation, language revitalization, and
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 7
language development. Application of the GIDS to specific situations has also resulted in some
restatement and reformulation of the levels, particularly in the higher levels where the role,
format, and nature of education become significant factors (see for example, King 2001).
First, the GIDS describes the levels of disruption in fairly static terms. While describing
the changes taking place as intergenerational transmission is disrupted, it does not adequately
account for the directionality of language shift versus language development. Thus a community
that is at Level 6 but moving towards Level 7 (language shift in progress) requires a different set
of interventions than one that is at Level 6 and moving towards Level 5 (language development
in progress). An expansion of the GIDS at Level 6 is needed to allow for these distinctions.
Second, the GIDS does not provide an adequate description of all of the possible statuses
of a language. At the upper end of the scale are a handful of languages that are international in
scope and are thus stronger than Level 1. At the lower end of the scale are languages that are
completely extinct and others that lie dormant as the heritage language of an active ethnic
community. If the GIDS is to serve as a framework for describing languages at any and all stages
of their life cycle, several additional levels must be distinguished.
Third, Fishman clearly identified intergenerational transmission of the language as the
single most important factor in language shift. This implies that the locus of language
revitalization efforts should be among individuals and within the home domain and local
community. This is clearly the case for Level 6 and below. However, above Level 6 we see the
increasingly important role of institutions outside of the home as transmission and use expand.
While Levels 7 and below clearly deal with intergenerational disruption, Levels 5 and above are
more properly focused on institutional development as drivers for securing ever wider
transmission. Fishman himself observed this distinction (Fishman 2001) but it is not clearly
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 8
indicated in most representations of the GIDS. The formulation of the expanded GIDS makes the
essential role of institutions (including the home) more explicit (in particular, higher level
institutions outside the home) as a community moves towards the strongest levels of language
use on the scale.
Fourth, and most notably, though ostensibly focused on the level of disruption, the
original GIDS is least elaborated at the lowest end of the scale, where the levels of disruption are
greatest. For the purposes of describing language shift and loss, this simpler set of categories
may be all that is required. However, for the purposes of language revitalization, a more granular
set of categories is more helpful. The elaboration of the GIDS that we are proposing provides a
richer set of analytical categories and a clearer indication of what societal factors need to be
addressed in each case.
UNESCO Language Endangerment Framework
An alternative framework for assessing the status and vitality of languages in danger was
proposed by a UNESCO panel of experts in 2003 (Brenzinger et al. 2003). The UNESCO
framework establishes six categories in a scale of language vitality. For the purpose of assessing
the status of a language, the framework provides a set of 9 factors that can be analyzed to
determine the category. The most salient of these factors is intergenerational transmission. See
Table 2 for a list of the categories and their corresponding state of intergenerational transmission.
Table 2 goes about here
In contrast to Fishman's GIDS, the UNESCO framework provides a richer set of
categories at the weaker end of the scale. Note, however, that it does not differentiate the status
of languages which are above Level 6 on the GIDS scale and lumps them all together under the
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 9
single label of "Safe". In spite of some significant obstacles to its ready implementation (See
Lewis 2006), the UNESCO Framework is beginning to be used and reported on a broad scale in
the latest edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (UNESCO 2009).
Ethnologue Language Vitality Categories
The Ethnologue (Gordon 2005; Grimes 2000; Lewis 2009) categorizes language vitality in terms
of a five level scale which is focused more on the number of first-language speakers than on
other factors. See Table 3 for a list of the categories and their definitions. There are other data
reported in Ethnologue which also contribute to a more well-rounded understanding of the status
of each language, but those are not tied together in a single index. (For a discussion of a more
robust set of metadata, see Lewis 2008)
Table 3 goes about here
Like the UNESCO Framework, the Ethnologue fails to provide sufficient differentiation
between languages at the higher end of the GIDS scale where standardization and the written use
of language for education, work, and governance is a significant factor. There is a great deal of
diversity of situations and levels of development to be found among the languages which
Ethnologue identifies simply as "Living". The category is taken as a default and is left undefined.
Ethnologue has long used the category of Second Language Only for languages which
are still in use but which are not learned by any community as their first language. Generally
these have been liturgical languages and languages of special use (cants, jargons, some pidgins,
and so forth). In the 16th edition, this category has been broadened to include languages which
were at one point considered Extinct (or, now, Dormant; see below) but which are being
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 10
revitalized and which have a growing group of emerging speakers who are learning their heritage
language as a second language.
In the 16th edition of the Ethnologue, the notion of dormant languages was introduced.
The need to distinguish between no-longer-spoken languages that still have a self-identifying
ethnic population in contrast to no-longer-spoken languages that have no self-identifying ethnic
population was indicated by the volume of editorial correspondence from members of ethnic
groups who objected to the label of “extinct” even though no remaining first-language speakers
could be identified. Following the trend in the literature to speak of “reawakening sleeping
languages”, the category Dormant was added for the former while retaining Extinct for the latter.
These partial modifications and accommodations of the Ethnologue scheme to a changing
understanding of language endangerment and revitalization have made it apparent that a more
thoroughgoing and comprehensive categorical framework is needed in order to account for the
broader range of factors and situations of the world's languages at all stages of disruption and
As a widely-used reference volume, it would be advantageous for the Ethnologue to
report ethnolinguistic vitality using a framework that represents current best practice and that can
be applied consistently to all of the world's languages whatever their degree of endangerment or
development. At the same time, such a scale should maintain some continuity with the
longstanding Ethnologue categories in order to maintain comparability and to facilitate
longitudinal studies of endangerment.
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 11
An Expanded GIDS (EGIDS)
With Fishman' s GIDS retaining its foundational and seminal role in the discourse on language
endangerment and with the highly influential and practical roles of the UNESCO atlas and the
Ethnologue as comprehensive catalogs of the world language situation, a harmonization of the
three schemes could be broadly useful and relevant for both analysts and practitioners.
An expanded version of the GIDS which incorporates such a harmonization is shown in
Table 4. The table lists 13 levels. The numbering of those levels has been designed to maintain
correspondence with Fishman's GIDS. Additional levels are either assigned new numbers or are
delineated by the addition of a letter. Thus Levels 6a and 6b in the EGIDS together correspond to
what is described more generally in Fishman's GIDS as Level 6. Similarly 8a plus 8b correspond
to the original Level 8. Levels 0, 9, and 10 are entirely new descriptive categories that allow the
EGIDS to be applied to all languages of the world. In addition, for convenience, each numbered
level is also assigned a short one or two word label that identifies the major functional category
of that level. The table also identifies the corresponding UNESCO(Brenzinger et al. 2003)
endangerment/vitality category for each EGIDS level. A brief description of each level follows.
Table 4 goes about here
EGIDS Level 0 (International) — The relatively few languages that are clearly used
internationally are at this level. While few if any minority languages will even aspire to this level
of safety and use, it is included for completeness and to allow a categorization of all the
languages of the world.
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 12
EGIDS Level 1 (National) — This level encompasses languages which function as national or
official languages and have full oral and, more importantly perhaps, written use that is supported
by the apparatus of the nation-state through standardization, use in government documents,
compulsory national-level education, and official publishing and dissemination institutions.
EGIDS Level 2 (Regional) — This level encompasses languages which function similarly to
national languages but at the more localized, regional level. They may not have as many
resources available to them nor as much institutional support as a national language, but they are
clearly recognized and promoted by regional institutions for education, government services and
EGIDS Level 3 (Trade) — This level encompasses languages that may not have official
recognition but are "vehicular" in that they are used as a second language by members of
multiple first-language communities and serve important functions for business and intergroup
communication. They are learned outside of the home either formally or informally and often
have a standardized (though perhaps not officially sanctioned) written form.
EGIDS Level 4 (Educational) — This level includes languages that are used either as media of
instruction or as subjects of instruction in a system of institutionally-supported, widely-
accessible education. It may be the first language of literacy for speakers of minority languages
with eventual acquisition of and transition to one of the languages at a higher level on the EGIDS
for more extensive written use. This is the stage that is often described as "mother tongue
literacy" or "first language literacy". Institutional support for literacy acquisition may be
primarily situated in the local community and be provided by more-or-less formally constituted
local institutions that are sustainable. Lee and Mclaughlin (2001) make the distinction at this
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 13
level between institutions which are primarily under local control (Level 4a) and those which are
under the control of outsiders (Level 4b). That distinction may well be useful in many contexts.
Here we focus primarily on the existence of institutional support for education in the minority
language in contrast to introduced literacy without such institutional support (EGIDS Level 5).
EGIDS Level 5 (Written) — This is the level at which literacy is incipient, more-often-than-not
informally transmitted and with only weak or transient institutional support. Although the
introduction of literacy can serve powerfully to improve the prestige of a minority language and
may increase its prospects for survival in many cases, the stronger institutional support for
literacy acquisition and maintenance found at the levels above is required for ongoing
transmission of local-language literacy from one generation to the next.
EGIDS Level 6a (Vigorous) — This is the level of ongoing oral use that constitutes sustainable
orality. Intergenerational transmission of the language is intact and widespread in the
community. The language use and transmission situation is stable or gaining strength.
EGIDS Level 6b (Threatened) — This is the level of oral use that is characterized by a
downward trajectory. The distinction between the two kinds of GIDS Level 6 follows from the
observation that Level 6 straddles the line of diglossia (King 2001). In our view, Level 6a
represents a stable diglossic configuration where oral functions are assigned to the L language
and written functions are assigned to H. In contrast, Level 6b represents the loss of that stable
diglossic arrangement with the oral domains being overtaken by another language or languages.
At Level 6b, many parents are transmitting the language to their children but a significant
proportion are not, so that intergenerational transmission is partial and may be weakening. With
each new generation there will be fewer speakers or fewer domains of use or both. There may
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 14
only be barely discernible portents of language shift and few in the community may have any
sense of impending danger. It is the first of the EGIDS levels that corresponds to an endangered
category in the UNESCO framework.
EGIDS Level 7 (Shifting) — This is the level that identifies clear cases of language shift in
progress. The fact that parents are not passing the language on to their children is clearly
discernible because that has become the norm within the language community. Consequently the
domains where use of the language is dominant are decreasing. Language revitalization through
reestablishing home transmission would still be a possibility at this stage since the language was
the first language for most of the parents.
EGIDS Level 8a (Moribund) — This is the case represented by Fishman's description of GIDS
stage 8. Only the grandparent generation has any active and frequent speakers of the language,
though some in the parent generation could speak it, though probably with less proficiency and
with many examples of contact phenomena, if called upon to do so.
EGIDS Level 8b (Nearly Extinct) — This level encompasses the stereotypical language loss
situation where the only remaining speakers are among the grandparent or great grandparent
generation, and are so few or so scattered that they have little opportunity to use the language
with each other.
EGIDS Level 9 (Dormant) — This level describes the situation which is increasingly common
among languages that have gone out of use fairly recently. (Both Ethnologue and UNESCO use
1950 as a convenient threshold date.) In some cases revitalization efforts may be underway or at
least contemplated. The community may have a strong (and perhaps increasing) sense of
identification with their no-longer-spoken heritage language and wish to foster its use as a
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 15
reinforcement of that identity. While the use of the language for daily communication will be
minimal (though there may be a number of emerging speakers who are gaining proficiency), the
most common use will be ceremonial and symbolic, requiring the support of the community and
home for intergenerational transmission.
EGIDS Level 10 (Extinct) — This level accounts for those situations where there are no
remaining speakers and no motivation within the community to retain an association with the
language, at least for the immediate future. As communities approach this stage it is important
that they be encouraged and assisted in the documentation of linguistic and sociocultural
practices which will be adequate to preserve the memory of the language for future generations.
With such documentation, revitalization at least to the stage of recovering linguistic identity
(EGIDS Level 9) might be achievable at some point in the future should the community so
Assessment of EGIDS Levels
The current status of a language can be assessed by answering a few key questions about
community language use. Figure 1 provides an overview of a decision-tree that can guide the
diagnosis and evaluation process. The decision tree involves only five questions. For the two
levels at the bottom of the scale, an answer to only the first question is sufficiently diagnostic.
For the four levels at the top of the scale, the first two questions must be answered. For the
remaining cases, only three questions must be answered to determine the EGIDS level.
Answering these questions may well entail a good deal of research, but this process is quite
focused and should make possible a much more comprehensive and rapid categorization of every
language of the world. A brief description of each key question follows.
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 16
Figure 1 goes about here
Key Question #1: What is the current identity function of the language? There are four
possible answers to this question: Historical, Heritage, Home, and Vehicular.
Historical — The language has no remaining speakers and no community which
associates itself with the language as a language of identity. There are no remaining
functions assigned to the language by any group. It is therefore at EGIDS Level 10
Heritage — There are no remaining L1 speakers, but there may be some emerging L2
speakers or the language may be used for symbolic and ceremonial purposes only.
Therefore, the language is at EGIDS Level 9 (Dormant).
Home — The language is used for daily oral communication in the home domain by at
least some. Here the trajectory of language shift or retention becomes an important factor
in order to determine the EGIDS level; see Key Question #3.
Vehicular — Based on the use of the phrase "vehicular language" by some as a synonym
for lingua franca, we use the term vehicular to refer to the extent to which a language is
used to facilitate communication among those who speak different first languages. If a
language is characterized here as being Vehicular, it is used by others as an L2 in
addition to being used by the community of L1 speakers. The language has an identity
function that goes beyond the local community most closely associated with it. In some
few cases (e.g. Korean, Japanese), an entire nation-state may, for the most part, share a
single common identity and culture and so achieve vehicularity in that the language is
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 17
widely used by nearly all. When this response is selected, Key Question #2 must be
answered in order to determine the EGIDS level.
Key Question #2: What is the level of official use? This question helps to distinguish between
the possible EGIDS levels when a language is serving the Vehicular identity function. There are
four possible answers which correspond to EGIDS levels 0 through 3.
International — The language is used internationally as a language of business,
education, and other activities of wider communication. This corresponds to EGIDS
Level 0 (International).
National — The language has official or de facto recognition at the level of the nation-
state and is used for government, educational, business, and for other communicative
needs. This corresponds to EGIDS Level 1 (National).
Regional — The language is officially recognized at the sub-national level for
government, education, business, and other functions. This corresponds to EGIDS Level
Not Official — The language is not officially recognized but is used beyond the local
community for intergroup interactions. These may include business (trade), social or
other communicative functions. This corresponds to EGIDS Level 3 (Trade).
Key Question #3: Are all parents transmitting the language to their children? This question
must be asked when the answer to Key Question #1 is Home. There are two possible answers.
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 18
Yes — Intergenerational transmission of the language is intact, widespread and ongoing.
If this is the selected answer, one more question (Key Question #4) must be answered in
order to determine if the community is at EGIDS Level 4, 5, or 6a.
No — Intergenerational transmission of L1 is being disrupted. This response would
characterize incipient or more advanced language shift. One additional question must be
answered (Key Question #5) in order to determine if the community is at EGIDS Level
6b, 7, 8a, or 8b.
Key Question #4: What is the literacy status? If the response to Key Question #3 is “Yes”,
then the status of literacy education in the community needs to be identified. There are three
possible answers to this question:
Institutional — Literacy is acquired through a system of education supported by a
sustainable institution. This is typically the government education system, though other
community-based institutions (such as church or cultural organization) may provide
literacy education. This corresponds to EGIDS Level 4 (Educational).
Incipient — Literacy in the language has been introduced into the community but has not
been acquired by most community members through well-established publicly-accessible
institutions. This corresponds to EGIDS Level 5 (Written).
None — There is no significant literate population, no organized means of acquiring
literacy skills, or those who are literate read and write only in a second language. There
are no institutions supporting local-language literacy or if such institutions exist they
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 19
have not yet had a significant impact on the community. This corresponds to EGIDS
Level 6a, Vigorous.
Key Question #5: What is the youngest generation of proficient speakers? When the
response to Key Question #3 (Intergenerational Transmission) is “No”, it is necessary to know
how far along language shift has progressed in order to assess the current EGIDS level. The
youngest generation of proficient speakers in an unbroken chain of intergenerational
transmission provides an index to the progress of language shift. By “proficient speaker” we
mean a person who uses the language for full social interaction in a variety of settings.
Specifically excluded is the partial and passive ability that typically characterizes the first
generation that embraced the second language.
Great Grandparents — The youngest proficient speakers of the language are of the
great grandparent generation. Language shift is very far along. This corresponds to
EGIDS Level 8b (Nearly Extinct).
Grandparents — The youngest proficient speakers of the language are of the
grandparent generation. Language shift is advanced. This corresponds to EGIDS Level 8a
Parents — The youngest proficient speakers of the language are the adults of child-
bearing age. Language shift has begun and is clearly in progress. This corresponds to
EGIDS Level 7 (Shifting).
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 20
Children — The youngest proficient speakers of the language are children. However,
language shift may be in its beginning stages since full intergenerational transmission is
not in place (Key Question #3). This corresponds to EGIDS Level 6b (Threatened).
Using these five questions and the decision tree process diagrammed in Figure 1, an assessment
can be made that will arrive at a description of each language community in terms of one of the
EGIDS levels. What is more, the five key questions identify some of the major factors that need
to be addressed in any language maintenance, revitalization, or development project. These
factors are identity, vehicularity, the status of intergenerational transmission, literacy acquisition
status, and a societal profile of generational language use. This evaluation provides a baseline
from which language planners can begin to construct a plan of action for their efforts.
The Special Case of Language Revitalization
All of the above assumes the downward trend of language shift. Table 5 shows the relevant
subset of the EGIDS when viewed from the perspective of language revitalization rather than
language loss. A different set of labels and level descriptions are warranted for some of the levels
at the lower end of the scale if the trend of language change is moving upwards either because of
naturally occurring language spread or because of engineered language revitalization efforts. In
addition to the change in the label for each level, the description of the level is also modified to
reflect the upward trend of language use as the community moves from one less robust level of
language vitality to a stronger one.
Table 5 goes about here
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 21
Most importantly, at the lowest end of the scale the natural pattern of intergenerational
transmission (from elder to younger) is being re-established, as children are re-acquiring the
heritage language as their first language and subsequently becoming the parents, grandparents
and great grandparents of each succeeding generation of language users. When language shift is
in progress, the extent of language loss is measured by identifying the youngest generation (in an
unbroken chain of intergenerational transmission) that retains proficiency in the language as
described by Table 4. By contrast, the advance of language re-acquisition and revitalization is
measured by identifying the oldest generation (in an unbroken chain of intergenerational
transmission) that can once again use the language with proficiency as described by Table 5.
Vigorous oral use of the language is not achieved until all generations are once again using the
language and transmitting it from elder to younger in the home setting. For these purposes, Key
Question #5 is restated as "What is the OLDEST generation that has acquired L1 proficiency?"
and the responses are inverted to indicate the corresponding re-labeled EGIDS levels from 6b to
Summary and Conclusions
The GIDS as developed by Fishman has served as the single most-often cited evaluative
framework of language endangerment for nearly two decades. It has provided the theoretical
underpinnings of much of what practitioners of language revitalization have engaged in. The
UNESCO Framework and the Ethnologue vitality categories are also widely used and relied
upon. We have proposed a harmonization of these three evaluative schemes that results in an
expanded GIDS (EGIDS). We have also proposed that any language situation can be evaluated
in terms of the EGIDS by answering five key questions regarding identity function, vehicularity,
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 22
state of intergenerational language transmission, literacy acquisition status, and a societal profile
of generational language use.
With this baseline information in hand, language planners can determine what it will take
for a community to move from the current EGIDS level to a more desirable status on the scale.
What is more, the answers to the key questions help identify which factors require particular
attention in order for the desired outcomes to be achieved. Such a process simplifies and
provides clarity to the planning process and helps direct scarce resources to the activities that are
most likely to be productive and helpful over the longer term.
The model presented here is based on a thoughtful analysis of theory and general
observations of language development programs worldwide. Nevertheless, it needs to be
empirically tested and without doubt merits refinement and improvement. Comments, field
observations, and practical application notes are invited. We end, as we began, by quoting
Thus, any theory and practice of assistance to threatened
languages—whether the threat be a threat to their very lives, on the
one hand, or a much less serious functional threat, on the other
hand—must begin with a model of the functional diversification of
languages. If analysts can appropriately identify the functions that
are endangered as a result of the impact of stronger languages and
cultures on weaker ones, then it may become easier to recommend
which therapeutic steps must be undertaken in order to counteract
any injurious impact that occurs. The purpose of our analyses must
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 23
be to understand, limit and rectify the societal loss of functionality
in the weaker language when two languages interact and compete
for the same functions within the same ethnocultural community
and to differentiate between life-threatening and non-life-
threatening losses. (Fishman 2001)
We hope that the Expanded GIDS we have proposed will make a contribution toward this end.
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vitality and endangerment, Paris, UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on
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of Language, 12, 13-22.
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Dorian, N. C., 1980. "Language shift in community and individual: the phenomenon of the
laggard semi-speaker". International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 25, 85-94.
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Dorian, N. C., 1987. "The value of language-maintenance efforts which are unlikely to succeed".
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Dorian, N. C. (ed.) 1989, Investigating obsolescence: Studies in language contraction and death,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Fishman, J. A., 1991, Reversing language shift, Clevedon, UK, Multilingual Matters Ltd.
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Fishman, J. A. (ed.) 2001, Can threatened languages be saved? Reversing language shift,
revisited: A 21st century perspective, Clevedon, UK, Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Gal, S., 1978. "Peasant men can't get wives: Language change and sex roles in a bilingual
community". Language in Society, 7, 1-16.
Gordon, R. G. (ed.) 2005, Ethnologue: Languages of the world, 15th edition, Dallas, SIL
Grimes, B. F. (ed.) 2000, Ethnologue: Languages of the world, 14th edition, Dallas, SIL
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Krauss, M., 1992. "The world's languages in crisis". Language, 68, 4-10.
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Lewis, M. P., 2008, "Evaluating endangerment: Proposed metadata and implementation", in:
King, K., N. Schilling-Estes, L. Fogle, J. Lou, B. Soukup (eds.), Sustaining linguistic
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UNESCO, 2009, UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, UNESCO,
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 25
GIDS (adapted from Fishman 1991)
1 The language is used in education, work, mass media, government at the nationwide
2 The language is used for local and regional mass media and governmental services
3 The language is used for local and regional work by both insiders and outsiders
4 Literacy in the language is transmitted through education
5 The language is used orally by all generations and is effectively used in written form
throughout the community
6 The language is used orally by all generations and is being learned by children as their
7 The child-bearing generation knows the language well enough to use it with their
elders but is not transmitting it to their children
8 The only remaining speakers of the language are members of the grandparent
Table 1 - Summary of Fishman's GIDS
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 26
endangerment Intergenerational Language Transmission
The language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational
transmission is uninterrupted
Vulnerable Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain
domains (e.g., home)
Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home
The language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while
the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to
children or among themselves
The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the
language partially and infrequently
Extinct There are no speakers left
Table 2 - UNESCO Framework (UNESCO 2009)
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 27
Living Significant population of first-language speakers
Second Language Only Used as second-language only. No first-language users, but may
include emerging users
Nearly Extinct Fewer than 50 speakers or a very small and decreasing fraction of an
Dormant No known remaining speakers, but a population links its ethnic
identity to the language
Extinct No remaining speakers and no population links its ethnic identity to
Table 3 - Ethnologue Vitality Categories (Lewis 2009)
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 28
Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (adapted from Fishman 1991)*
LEVEL LABEL DESCRIPTION UNESCO
0 International The language is used internationally for a broad range
of functions. Safe
1 National The language is used in education, work, mass media,
government at the nationwide level. Safe
2 Regional The language is used for local and regional mass
media and governmental services. Safe
3 Trade The language is used for local and regional work by
both insiders and outsiders. Safe
4 Educational Literacy in the language is being transmitted through
a system of public education. Safe
The language is used orally by all generations and is
effectively used in written form in parts of the
6a Vigorous The language is used orally by all generations and is
being learned by children as their first language. Safe
The language is used orally by all generations but
only some of the child-bearing generation are
transmitting it to their children.
The child-bearing generation knows the language
well enough to use it among themselves but none are
transmitting it to their children
8a Moribund The only remaining active speakers of the language
are members of the grandparent generation.
8b Nearly Extinct
The only remaining speakers of the language are
members of the grandparent generation or older who
have little opportunity to use the language.
The language serves as a reminder of heritage
identity for an ethnic community. No one has more
than symbolic proficiency.
10 Extinct No one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated
with the language, even for symbolic purposes. Extinct
Table 4 - Expanded GIDS
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 29
6a Vigorous The language is used orally by all generations and is being learned at
home by all children as their first language.
6b Re-established Some members of a third generation of children are acquiring the
language in the home with the result that an unbroken chain of
intergenerational transmission has been re-established among all
7 Revitalized A second generation of children are acquiring the language from their
parents who also acquired the language in the home. Language
transmission takes place in home and community.
8a Reawakened Children are acquiring the language in community and some home
settings and are increasingly able to use the language orally for some
day-to-day communicative needs.
8b Reintroduced Adults of the parent generation are reconstructing and reintroducing
their language for everyday social interaction.
9 Rediscovered Adults are rediscovering their language for symbolic and
Table 5 - Revitalization EGIDS Levels
Assessing Endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS, Draft: 11 Sept 2009 Page 30
0 - International
1 - National
2 - Regional
3 - Trade
5 - Written
6a - Vigorous
6b - Threatened
7 - Shifting
9 - Dormant
10 - Extinct
the level of
4 - Educational
What is the
What is the
8a - Moribund
8b - Nearly Extinct
Are all parents
the language to their
What is the
that has some
Figure 1 - Extended GIDS Diagnostic Decision Tree