Theoretical background

Language ecology

Ecology is a science about the interaction of an organism with its environment, also about how to maintain the natural diversity of species and their equilibrium in the context of expanding civilisation.  The concept of language ecology was introduced by Einar Haugen in his article „The ecology of language" (1972). He defined it as “the study of interactions between any given language and its environment”, where an environment is understood as the society that “uses it as one of its codes”.

Although the notion is about a half century old, it is still used mostly metaphorically. It was even stigmatised about ten years ago because of the dubious orientation of research that was published under this rubric. Nevertheless, there have been serious studies trying to advance language ecology as the study of the relationships that languages have with each other and with their environments.

At present the most widely known framework of language ecology is the Fishman’s theory of Reversing Language Shift (RLS), introduced in early 1990ties. It is based largely on Haugen’s principles, but is focusing more narrowly on linguistic aspects of language shift. The most important contribution of RLS is the recognition of the intergenerational language transmission as the key aspect in language maintenance.

In 2003, a UNESCO ad hoc working group proposed a framework of language vitality and endangerment that has somewhat broader scope than RLS. Even more broad and ecological is the approach taken by the ethnolinguistic vitality theory (EVT) at the end of 1970ies. Despite the fact that this theory was heavily criticised, its main idea that the sustainability of an ethnic group depends on its ability to act as a distinctive collective entity within an intergroup setting is very insightful.

Responding to the criticism to EVT,  Martin Ehala has developed a language sustainability theory during the last decade. According to this theory, ethnic groups are autopoietic systems that strive for their own maintenance through time. Based on the analysis of previous theories of language maintenance, the language sustainability theory outlines three major classes of factors affecting sustainability: 1) external factors, 2) internal factors and 3) ethnolinguistic vitality. The main challenges for language sustainability come from the changes in the external environment. To react and anticipate these challenges, the ethnic groups are trying to develop their internal environments. The ability to develop the internal environment and to react to the changes in the external environment depends on the ethnolinguistic vitality of the group. Thus, vitality is the key factor in securing the sustainability of an ethnic group.

Linguistic environment

For an ecological approach, the notion of the environment is a key concept. We define it as a territory that is populated by speakers, organisations and institutions, and which is characterised by a stable language regime, different from the language regimes in neighbouring linguistic environments.

Language regime is a stable pattern of language practices in a specific linguistic environment, especially the presence and use of different languages in:

  1. private settings (home and neighbourhood)
  2. education and research
  3. economics, trade and services
  4. administration
  5. the mediascape and cultural industries
  6. the linguistic landscape

Language regime affects the language practices of speakers, but is, in turn, affected by these practices.

Linguistic environment is the main macro level variable that affects language sustainability.

Language sustainability

Language sustainability (often also called vitality) is a group’s ability to maintain and protect its existence in time as a collective entity with a distinctive identity and language. It involves continuing intergenerational transmission of group’s language and cultural practices, sustainable demography and active social institutions, social cohesion and emotional attachment to its collective identity. The consequence of the loss of sustainability is language shift (abandonment of the old language in favour of a new one).

The main cause of language shift are caused by changes in the linguistic environment that reduce the functionality of a praticular language, just as biological species become extinct if unable to adapt to a changing environment. Differently from biological species that are just able to adapt to the changing environment, speech communities are also capable of activel changing the environment increasing their own sustainability.

The nature of a linguistic environment is determined by a number of factors.  For example, the ethnolinguistic vitality theory  establishes three categories of factors: 1) demographic, 2) institutional support and 3) status factors that influence the presence and use of different languages in an environment.

In 2003, a UNESCO ad hoc working group proposed a framework of language vitality and endangerment. This framework specified nine key indicators to assess the vitality of a language:

  1. intergenerational language transmission,
  2. absolute number of speakers,
  3. proportion of the speakers in the total population,
  4. trends in existing language domains,
  5. response to new domains and media,
  6. materials for education and literacy,
  7. governmental language attitudes and policies,
  8. community members’ attitudes to their language, and
  9. amount and quality of documentation. 

While the nature of a linguistic environment sets the general frames that affect language use and intergenerational transmission, it is not the sole explanatory variable for language maintenance or loss: speakers' attitudes, values and beliefs, i.e. their orientations toward languages, are also important factors determining language sustainability. It is widely attested that, even in the same environment, people who have positive orientations towards maintaining their language maintain it better than those with less favourable orientations.


Research problem

Because of the small size of the Estonian speech community, migration and increasing economic and political integration could have a relatively stronger and more rapid effect in Estonia than in larger speech communities. At least in the Estonian mainstream media, the possibility of the “death” of the Estonian language is widely debated, yet there is little scholarly evidence used in these argumentations. As language endangerment has become prominent in media discourses, it needs to be studied systematically to assess the endangerment discourse objectively and to disregard any possible political manipulation of this issue.

Language sustainability depends on a number of crucial demographic, social, political, cultural, sociolinguistic, attitudinal and discursive variables. Ecological approach requires a complex analysis of their interaction and joint impact. As these factors are different in different linguistic environments, the analysis of the sustainability of Estonian language must focus on the key linguistic environments where Estonian is used. This systematic analysis will enable us to assess the sustainability of Estonian in a complex manner, taking into account crucial environmental differences.

Currently, most of this type of research is focussed on severely endangered languages, which makes the theory inapplicable to larger communities. We aim to develop a theory that is applicable to languages in general, not only to languages that are clearly and severely endangered.

While the theoretical work conducted in the field of language ecology stresses the need for a comprehensive study using a large number of variables, in reality most of the empirical research has focussed on a few variables at a time. Therefore, there has been an insufficient empirical grounding underlying the development of the theory of language ecology. Grounding our theoretical work on a large array of systematically collected empirical evidence makes our approach novel and significant in the field.

Main objectives

The main goal of this project is to analyse and assess the sustainability of Estonian in a globalised world and, using this particular case study, to advance the theory of language ecology.  Based on the argumentation in the previous section, we will focus on four subtasks:

  1. To analyse the characteristics of the key linguistic environments where Estonian is used and the factors that shape these environments.
  2. To analyse which languages are used by whom and in which domains in each of these linguistic environments, and how the nature of the linguistic environment affects usage, including intergenerational transmission.
  3. To analyse the speakers’ orientations towards the use of languages in each linguistic environment, and how the orientations influence usage, including intergenerational transmission.
  4. To analyse the interaction of the linguistic environment, users’ practices and their attitudes towards the use of different languages (subtasks 1-3), in order to develop the theory of language ecology.

Theoretically, this will enable us to specify how different linguistic environments affect language sustainability in general.

The deliverables of the project will be:

  1. Manual of the Language Sustainability Kit, containing the questionnaires, interview protocols, and procedures for analysis with methodological comments (2015).
  2. A database of Estonian linguistic environments for future use in longitudinal studies and for possible comparative studies (2016, then continuous).
  3. Agent oriented simulation system of the Estonian linguistic environment, in cooperation with prof Kuldar Taveter from Tallinn technical University (2017, then continuous).
  4. An exploratory workshop on language ecology in 2016  and a larger international conference on language ecology in 2019.
  5. The outreach monograph “Sustainability of Estonian” in Estonian, aimed at a wide domestic audience, policy makers and educators (2018).


Ehala, Martin (2014) Principles of language ecology. I. Kull, K. & Lang, V. (eds) Estonian Approaches to Culture Theory. Approaches to Culture Theory 4, 2-21. University of Tartu Press, Tartu.

Ehala, Martin, Anastassia Zabrodskaja (2014). Ethnolinguistic Vitality and Acculturation Orientations of Russian Speakers in Estonia. In Ryazanova-Clarke, L. (ed) The Russian Language outside the Nation, 166–188. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.

Klaas-Lang, Birute (2014). Comment va la langue estonienne au début du XXIe siècle? Etudes finno-ougriennes, 44, 31-58.

Related projects

Agent oriented simulation system of the Estonian linguistic environment

In collaboration with the research group of Prof. Kuldar Taveter from Tallinn Technical University an agent simulation system will be developed, based on the empirical data and theoretical model, and replicating the key parameters of Estonian linguistic environments. The goal is to create a 1000 agent virtual model of the Estonian linguistic environment.