Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Endangered Languages (or, What Dies When a Language Dies?)

Last week, I took my students to a Sustainability Symposium at Cal State Fullerton.  We heard professors and graduate students give talks, mainly on environmental topics like the decline of the honeybee, the need for solar power, and community gardens.  But the speaker whom I found most captivating was actually a linguist, and a colleague of mine--professor Natalie Operstein.  She spoke on the topic of "Linguistic Sustainability" -- how thousands of languages today are endangered and dying.  

She began by discussing ancient languages that have died, like Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Coptic, and Phoenician.  Later, in the middle ages, more languages died, like Celtiberian (from Spain), Umbrian (from Italy) and Gothic.  Reasons for language death are varied: natural disasters, war, genocide, repression, assimilation, and economic/cultural dominance of one group over another.

Sumerian document from 26th century B.C.E.

The rate of language death, according to Dr. Operstein, has accelerated dramatically over the past 500 years.  For example, before European contact with South America, it is estimated that 1,500 languages were spoken there.  Today, there are only 350.  One consequence of conquest and imperialism (both economic and cultural) is the loss of native cultures, which includes language.  

This phenomenon is not limited to South America.  In North America, particularly the United States, many native languages have been lost, including the language of the original inhabitants of the area where I live (north Orange County)--the Kizh tribe.  No one alive today speaks Kizh because native Americans in California (as elsewhere) were systematically killed and their culture squashed by the dominant English-speaking culture (my culture).

Aside from simple murder and genocide, another way Native American languages were destroyed was Indian Boarding Schools, which forbade the speaking of native languages, and used corporal punishment (hitting kids).  These schools were guided by the racist ideology, "Kill the Indian, save the man."  The documentary "Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools" is both informative and heart-breaking.  Here's a scene from that film:


Language death is currently happening all over the world.  Today, there are around 6,500 languages in the world, and it is estimated that, by the year 2100, half of them will have gone extinct, due to the dominating influence of "major languages" like English (my language).  

Given this dire situation, what can be done?  There are heroic efforts being made by the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Oral Literature Project, archiving efforts like Ailla, and linguists around the world whose job (and passion) it is to study and document endangered languages.  I had never considered "linguist" to be a heroic profession until hearing Dr. Operstein speak.

Today, in my classes, we watched the following videos.  The first is from the BBC and is about a language revitalization effort with the Yurok tribe of Northern California, and also contains a thought-provoking interview with the director of the World Oral Literature Project:


The second video is a list, with images and explanations, of the 25 most endangered languages in the world today:


After watching these videos, we did a thought experiment/writing activity.  I asked my students to spend some time writing in response to this prompt:

How would you feel and what would your concerns be if you were the last living speaker of your native language?  What dies when a language dies?

As usual, I did the writing activity as well.  Here's what I wrote:

If I was the last native speaker of English, I would feel lonely.  I would feel a sense of great loss, as a lover of English literature.  I would feel that generations of cultural knowledge were dying with me.  I would lament the fact that it took generations, centuries for English to form…I would cry for the slow evolution that was ending in extinction.  I would feel a desire to pass on my language, to preserve books, to teach the next generation.  What dies when a language dies?  Language is deeply connected to human identity, to a person's worldview, to culture.  When a language dies, all of these things are lost.  Often times a language develops in response to a particular natural environment.  Among some aboriginal tribes of Australia, language (particularly song) gives meaning and existence to the physical world.  So when that language dies, in a sense, the world dies too.  

Then we discussed our writings, and agreed (for the most part) that efforts should be made to preserve languages, and that the Darwinian model of "survival of the fittest" ought not apply to human language.  I am motivated to research more deeply, and see if any remnants remain of the Kizh language survive in old government documents, anthological field notes, etc.  I would like to be a part of the kind of language revitalization that is happening in the Yurok tribe, where Yurok is now taught in high schools.  What if, instead of killing native languages, I cold be a part of resurrecting one?  That, I think, would be a noble and worthwhile endeavor, not just for my local community, but for communities around the world where endangered languages exist.

Here I am with Kizh Chief Ernie Salas and his daughter Nadine at a recent tribal ceremony.

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