The Inspiring Quest to Revive the Hawaiian Language

November 17th, 2020 by Pelehonuamea Suganuma and Kekoa Harman were bright-eyed high schoolers in Honolulu when they first crossed paths, in the 1990s. The two were paired for a performance—a ho‘ike, as such shows are known in Hawaiian. Both teenagers had a passion for hula and mele (Hawaiian songs and chants), and they liked performing at the school they’d chosen to attend—Kamehameha High School, part of a 133-year-old private network that gave admissions preference to students of Hawaiian Polynesian ancestry. Still, one part of Hawaiian culture remained frustratingly out of reach for Pele and Kekoa: the language. Over many generations, the native tongue of the islands had been systematically eliminated from everyday life, and even the Kamehameha Schools weren’t able to bring it back. Part of it was a lack of interest—students seemed to prefer learning Japanese, Spanish or French. But more important, Hawaii’s educators generally hadn’t yet figured out how to teach Hawaiian vocabulary and grammar, or give eager youngsters like Pele and Kekoa opportunities to immerse themselves in Hawaiian speech. A few years later, Pele and Kekoa found themselves together again. Both of them enrolled in a brand-new Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The two former schoolmates became part of a pioneering cohort that was innovating ways to bring Hawaiian back to life. They helped develop some of the first truly successful Hawaiian language programs throughout the state’s islands. Along the way, they started dating, got married and had four children, and raised them to speak fluent Hawaiian. Today, Pele teaches at a Hawaiian-language K-12 school and Kekoa teaches Hawaiian language and culture at the college they both attended. At home, their family speaks almost exclusively Hawaiian. The Harmans are proud of the revival they helped carry out in just one generation. But Unesco still lists the language as critically endangered, and there’s a long way to go before it’s spoken again as a part of everyday life. “There’s a false sense of security sometimes,” says Pele, “that our language is coming back.” Read more: Smithsonian

The drive to preserve the Lil’wat language

July 9th, 2020 by In mid-March, Valerie St-Arnaud and her husband Dave Leveille found themselves hurtling cross-country in a large, black RAM Promaster van during not just a snowstorm, but also a burgeoning pandemic. The couple had just purchased the van from Ontario and were in the process of bringing it back home to Pemberton. "We were at our family's house in Quebec and heard about social distancing, but we had to bring the van in 10 days because our registration was expiring," St-Arnaud explains. "We did the road trip across Canada and there was no one on the road. It was just the two of us. We got back on March 23 just in time. There was a huge snowstorm and we were freaking out." Fast forward a few short months and not only has so much changed globally, but the couple has also completely transformed the van in that time. On Thursday, June 18, the van officially began to fulfill its destiny as a mobile recording studio as part of Bonding Beaver Media—St-Arnaud and Leveille's company that aims to foster and support the preservation of Indigenous languages through multimedia—when they travelled to the home of Lil'wat Nation elder Priscilla Ritchie to record. "It's beautiful," Ritchie says about her first impression of the van. "It's neat to have it come to my place instead of trying to find a way to get [to a recording studio]." Read more: Squamish Chief

Reviving aboriginal language through literature and tech

January 18th, 2020 by A group of academics and indigenous language advocates are using technology and books to try to revive an endangered aboriginal language. Dr Hilary Smith is a linguist and author who has just launched a series of children's books written in the aboriginal Gamilaraay language. She's been working for the last four years in Gunnedah, north-east NSW, learning about the language and developing tools to try to resuscitate it, particularly with younger generations. Gamilaraay was one of the hundreds of languages that were in Australia before 1788 and it is at risk of disappearing the way many others have, she says. "Of the 250 to languages in Australia, there are only 13 that are really being used and transmitted in homes. Due to policies like Stolen Generations, massacres, invasions it was really at the verge of being a language lost.” Dr Smith says that until recently, people weren’t allowed to speak the language, and today there aren’t any people speaking Gamilaraay at home, but there’s a lot of interest in reviving the language. Read more: RNZ

Canadian film made in language spoken by just 20 people in the world

March 28th, 2019 by Plenty of films are somewhat incomprehensible, but a forthcoming movie is in a language that only about 20 people in the world can speak fluently. With subtitles, audiences will be able to understand a feature film titled SGaawaay K’uuna, translated as Edge of the Knife, which has its UK premiere in April. It is in two dialects of the highly endangered Haida language, the ancestral tongue of the Haida people of British Columbia. It is unrelated to any other language, and actors had to learn it to understand their lines. The film is playing an important role in preserving the language, its director Gwaai Edenshaw said. He told the Guardian: “I know that, if our language is this far gone, statistically it’s supposed to be over. But that’s not something that we’re willing to accept.” The Haida are an Indigenous First Nations community whose traditional territory is Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), an archipelago of forested islands off the west coast of Canada. Edenshaw said most of the fluent Haida speakers were in his Haida Gwaii homeland. “There’s a smattering off the island [who] also speak it.” Edenshaw himself speaks some of the language but is not fluent, having been taught at school in English. He added that the community generally lives off the sea and makes dugout canoes and houses from local red cedars. Noting that their numbers were ravaged by smallpox and other diseases in the 19th century, he said a former population of tens of thousands has dwindled to a few thousand today. Read more:

Saving an Endangered Language

April 10th, 2018 by Walk past Abernethy Hall Room 102 on any given Friday afternoon during the semester and you’ll likely hear sounds of an endangered language wafting through the halls. “Siyo.” (Hello.) “Osigwotsu?” (How are you?) “Osigwo.” (I am fine.) “Ihina?” (And you?) “Osda!” (Great!) It’s “AniKahwi,” Cherokee Coffee Hour, for students interested in learning to speak Cherokee. American studies assistant professor Ben Frey ’05 started the coffee hour in 2013 after returning to UNC-Chapel Hill as a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity. It is one of many ways he is working to revitalize the Cherokee language. Indigenous people have spoken Cherokee in North Carolina for 11,000 years. Now, only 238 people — 1.4 percent of the 17,000 citizens of Eastern Band of Cherokees — speak the tribe’s Kituwah dialect. Most of them are 65 and older. Preserving a culture’s language is important for many reasons, Frey said. Unique knowledge and traditions held by these cultures can offer solutions for today’s pressing challenges, from environmental sustainability to health care. Connecting to one’s heritage helps individuals and communities understand who they are. Fortunately, Frey’s research on how language use declines — or shifts — offers a path forward to revive this endangered language. Frey’s Cherokee language education began while he was a German and linguistics major at UNC in the early 2000s. A citizen of the Eastern Band, Frey grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Cherokee was not taught at home. His grandmother was among the Cherokee youth removed from their homes, placed in boarding schools and punished for speaking the language by a U.S. government bent on eradicating native cultures. While she and Frey’s great-grandmother spoke Cherokee to each other when they didn’t want the children to understand, they did not pass on the language. Read more: Carolina Arts & Sciences

Acoma Pueblo’s Emergency Push To Save Its Language

June 1st, 2017 by Acoma Pueblo is considered the oldest continually inhabited community in North America. And only about a hundred people or so still speak the Acoma Keres language. Many of those fluent speakers gathered earlier this month in Acoma to record their voices, saving words, concepts and culture. They’re hoping that someday soon, young people will speak the language, too. It was a cloudy, drizzly day. But it was warm and smelled like good food cooking in the Acoma Learning Center. In six separate rooms there, people—mostly elders—gathered around tables with microphones in the middle. They thought up all the Acoma-Keres words that they could to describe thin people. They went around the table and confirmed them. These days, mostly adults and older folks speak this endangered language. The women here are working with a linguist from an organization called The Language Conservancy who wrote down their words phonetically. Until now, Acoma-Keres has been an oral tradition. Becky Martin said recalling words also means recalling history. "I could remember where we went to go pray, where we went to go do things, how my grandparents would describe this vast land or something like that," she said. Read more: KUNM

Last fluent Ngandi speaker works to pass on endangered Indigenous language

April 16th, 2017 by Grant Mathumba Thompson did not have a chance to learn Ngandi growing up, despite it being the language of his mother and grandparents. His great aunt Cherry Wulumirr Daniels has started teaching him Ngandi and other traditional languages, so they can run classes at the local school. "Knowing, learning the languages has saved my life in a way I couldn't think of," he said. "It's given me responsibility. It's given me so much to look forward to." The main language spoken in Ngukurr is Kriol but there are at least seven endangered traditional languages in the region, including Ngandi, Marra, Wägilak/Ritharrngu, Ngalakgan, Rembarrnga, Nunggubuyu and Alawa. Ms Daniels and Mr Thompson work at the Ngukurr Language Centre, a not-for-profit organisation trying to revitalise these languages. Read more: ABC News

Last fluent Mandan speaker dies, puts language at risk

December 16th, 2016 by The death of Edwin Benson, of Twin Buttes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in west-central North Dakota, who was the last living soul who could fluently speak Mandan could bring the possible extinction of a language that expressed the unique experiences and perceptions of a once-thriving tribe of Plains Indians. Benson died Friday at age 85. A wake was held at Twin Buttes Monday, a night of frigid cold outside, where the tradition of honoring the deceased with beautiful star quilts and woolen blankets was warm in remembrance. The solitary coffin at the front of the hall — bedecked with elaborate headdresses and flower arrangements — held so much more than the mortal remains of a man. It contained all the diversity that a language adds to the world and for that, most especially, Three Affiliated Tribes councilman Cory Spotted Bear came to express his regrets at Benson's passing. "The world we live in becomes less. The language is the way the Mandan see the world," Spotted Bear said. Spotted Bear has been behind efforts to preserve Nu'eta, the proper word for Mandan, not only through his earlier work with Benson and personal graduate work in linguistics, but through a two-year, $1 million project funded by the tribe to document and collate all known records of the language. Read more: West Central Tribune

Chance to save ancient language

December 7th, 2016 by In a village in northern Cyprus, a community struggling to save its ancient language has seen a glimmer of hope in intensified efforts to reunify the divided island. Kormakitis was once the hub of Cyprus’s Maronite minority, descendants of Syrian and Lebanese Christians who spoke Sanna, a unique dialect of Arabic influenced by the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. The language is now severely endangered, according to UNESCO. Uprooted by the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, many Maronites assimilated into Greek-Cypriot communities where they sought shelter. They have seen fresh hope in recent months as the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders intensified their efforts to reunite the island. Talks in Switzerland ended on November 21 with no breakthrough, but the leaders have since agreed to resume negotiations and are due to meet again in Geneva in January. The Maronites hope a deal could eventually encourage the community to return to live in northern Cyprus. That could help revive Sanna, which is in decline despite years of classes, the efforts of NGOs and an annual summer school in the village. Read more: Kathimerini English Edition

This forest language from the age of Vikings may soon disappear

October 7th, 2016 by In a remote part of Sweden surrounded by mountains, valleys and thick forests, the community of Älvdalen is desperately attempting to preserve its unique heritage. Up until the mid-20th century, the town of some 1,800 inhabitants spoke a language called Elfdalian, believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. The beautiful and complex tongue, likened to the fictional languages of "The Lord of the Rings" or "Game of Thrones," remained preserved throughout the centuries because of the area's natural isolation. “Älvdalen lies extremely deep within the Swedish forests and mountains," Michael Lerche Nielsen, an assistant professor at the Department of Nordic Research at the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. "You can get there by boat up the river, Dalälven — a journey of more than 100 kilometers — and getting there and back used to be quite an expedition. So people in the area weren’t particularly mobile and were able to preserve this very special culture, considered in Sweden to be extremely traditional and old fashioned." Even the practice of using runic script, another vestige of Old Norse that otherwise died out during the Middle Ages, was still in use in Älvdalen as recently as 100 years ago. Read more: Mother Nature Network