Language Rights Are Human Rights: A Hope for a Future of Linguistic Diversity

January 24th, 2020 by Welcome to our language Taste The Sauce —Reesom Haile, Eritrean poet (translation by Charles Cantalupo) The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question for me: “So what is your hope for the future?” As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even deeper and more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folklore. Founded in 1985, we work to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring folk and community-based artists into schools, project poems from the POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to further New York City’s—and America’s—living cultural heritage. Yet my hope for the future goes beyond this: it is that every soul, whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet, continues through the generations to bring something new into the world, retains their individuality, develops their own sense of humor, and tells their own unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I shared with my brothers. That was our language. As human beings, we rely on our language—the language we live in and in which we feel at home—to fully express ourselves. For each of us to live fully as sentient and distinctive individuals, we need to emerge from a diversity of dialects, languages, and cultures. To explore these ideas more deeply, City Lore has held exhibits such as What We Bring: New Immigrant Gifts and Mother Tongues: Endangered Languages in New York and Beyond. Yuri Marder’s photographs from the latter are featured in this article. The dissolution of a language diminishes each speaker’s ability to be oneself. Half the languages in the world today will disappear in this century. In New York City alone, the Endangered Language Alliance suggests that many of the more than 600 languages spoken are endangered. The Slovenian and Germanic endangered language, Gottscheerisch, is holding on in Ridgewood, Queens; Himalayan languages are still spoken in parts of Brooklyn and Queens; and the Arawakan Garifuna language can still be heard in the Bronx. For me, there is a global imperative to preserve endangered languages—no matter the scale—whether within a nation, a tribe, or village. As Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from the Abenaki tribe in Quebec province put it, “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” But why is preserving endangered languages and cultural diversity as important as, say, climate change, or income inequality? Clearly, they are different issues, but they stem from some of the same causes and harbor the same potential solutions. Read more: The Smithsonian

The use of poetry in preserving endangered languages

December 1st, 2019 by Language is a powerful cultural and political tool which provides a major cultural unity in many countries. Poetry conceptualises and unites cultures and thoughts, manipulates ordinary language and in its effortless simplicity and diversity, touches minds and souls. A recent podcast by The Guardian explores the measures taken to preserve endangered languages globally through poetry, sparked by the fact that one language dies every two weeks. The podcast discusses the decline in minority languages such as those indigenous to New Zealand, but by contrast countries like Belarus whose minority language still survives Russian Soviet regimes. Here in the UK, we are facing an institutionalised resistance to learning languages in our schools entirely. So what exactly does it mean for a language to die, and how is poetry attempting to save this situation? During secondary education I had only ever sat through one lesson on endangered languages, and remember just one episode on TV about the indigenous British languages. It is so rarely talked about in our schools and society and yet there are around 14 languages indigenous to Britain, including Manx and Cornish. We seem accustomed to the presence of the Welsh language and in Scotland and Ireland, Gaelic and Irish still form a vital part of society and identity. Although most of these languages are in some form of decline in a global sense, there is a far more pressing and immediate danger to minority languages and cultures elsewhere in the world. When a language dies, a cultural connection, a history, and a way of thinking is erased. For many languages of the past, the erasure was brought about by an institutionalised political assimilation. The political enforcement of an outside culture often meant that the practice of indigenous languages was made illegal and this loss became more profound due to the vulnerability of those forced to conform. Read more: The Boar

Reclaiming a culture: How Indiana University is helping an indigenous community restore its endangered language

October 12th, 2019 by More than 2,000 hours of audio and video field recordings of vocabulary, interviews and storytelling from indigenous people reside in the collection of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University. Now, some of these recordings are being put to use to help one indigenous community reclaim its endangered language and culture. The institute recently received funding to continue work with the Assiniboine people of the Northern Great Plains of North America to strengthen their language, Nakoda, by creating instructional materials, dictionaries and storybooks for use in reservation schools and households. Many of these materials pull from stories recorded by IU faculty in the 1970s and 1980s. Founded in 1985 by IU anthropology professors Raymond DeMallie and Douglas Parks, the American Indian Studies Research Institute has a long history of interdisciplinary research projects that attempt to fully understand and describe the language, culture or history of the native people of the Americas. In 2007, the institute launched a partnership with the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to create the first comprehensive Lakota language curriculum for K-12 schools. The success of these materials, coupled with decades of relationship-building and contact with the university, inspired leaders in the Assiniboine community to approach the institute about working together to create similar instructional materials for Nakoda. They hope that using the narratives told by tribe elders as the basis for the instructional materials will allow learners to not only reclaim the language but to more fully understand the Assiniboine worldview. Read more: Indiana University

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages Is Critical

September 2nd, 2019 by Being fluent in a world language is a desirable skill in modern day society. However, some languages are suffering and in danger of extinction — namely those of the indigenous peoples. “There are between 6,000 and 7,000 world languages in the world today,” Brian Keane, rapporteur of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said in his keynote speech last week, revealing that half of them are expected to go extinct by 2100. As a result, more than 50% of the worlds indigenous peoples are in danger of losing their language. “You can’t preserve or protect or revitalize indigenous languages in a vacuum- they’re related to all of the other rights of indigenous peoples, principally the right to self-determination,” Keane told IPS, adding that the Permanent Forum tries to highlight all of these rights, citing several branches to assist indigenous rights. Asked what role the Forum will play, he said: “Our role is trying to move countries forward when implementing rights and outlining declarations.” Keane said, stressing that only when indigenous peoples are able to practice self-determination, and be able to live on their ancestral territories, “can we truly protect the languages”. The annual commemoration of World Indigenous Peoples Day took place August 9 and was organized by the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The event featured two panels, guest speakers, and performances. Today, there are about 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide, making up about 5% of the population. However, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has predicted that, by the end of this century, between 50-90% of indigenous languages will perish. Read more: IPS News Agency

On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

November 5th, 2018 by NEW YORK—There are 800 different languages spoken among New York’s 8.5 million residents, and unfortunately, that number may be decreasing. One man is on a mission to make sure the city and the world don’t lose their linguistic diversity. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger states that 230 languages have died since 1950. According to Ethnologue, approximately a third of extant languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers alive today. When a language becomes extinct, a community collapses. That group loses the ability to speak their mother tongue, and pass it on to their children. A whole culture is ultimately lost. “A community loses bonds to their heritage. A community loses the kind of glue that binds them together,” Daniel Bögre Udell, director of Wikitongues, told The Epoch Times. Learning a Language Udell is a sixth-generation American. His mother’s family came from Scotland and Hungary, and his father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews. As he was growing up, English was spoken at home in rural Pennsylvania. When Udell turned 13, he got his first job as a busboy at a local restaurant. Many of his coworkers were Spanish speakers, and Udell made an effort to learn their language. By the time he was 16, he had conversational proficiency in Spanish. Initially, he saw language as just a practical tool. “I think that at that time I still understood language as a primarily utilitarian phenomenon, something that could just get us through the day, help us in business, help us in travel,” Udell said. “But like most majority language speakers, I think I still understood language as something to be taken for granted, not something that was necessarily integral to my identity, my culture, who I was.” During high school, Udell had the opportunity to study abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. Immersed in the Spanish-speaking city, he thought that Spanish was the only language spoken in the country. Read more:

More than 2,000 of the world’s languages are dying out

May 24th, 2018 by As a child, Kanako Uzawa treasured her school vacations, when she traveled from Tokyo to her family farm in Nibutani, a remote village in northern Japan. “There were rice fields extending into the distance,” she says. “It was all very green with fresh air… It was paradise for kids.” Uzawa, who was born in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, is a member of the Ainu, an indigenous group from northern Japan. The story of this small community is one of erasure instigated by the state. In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government sought a unified, cohesive vision of Japan; the very existence of the Ainu and other indigenous groups threatened Japan’s national myth of homogeneity. In 1899, the government passed an act now known as the Former Natives Protection Law, which stripped the Ainu of their identity: names were changed, language was curbed, and they were forced to give up hunting and gathering and begin farming on poor land. As long as humans have formed shared identities around ethnicity, religion, race, language, and culture, those identities have been subject to erasure, from colonialism to war to economic globalization to linguistic homogenization to environmental change. Just look to the island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, preparing to sink beneath the sea, or to Greenland, preparing for its ice to melt away. In the previous episode, we explored how asylum seekers struggle to define their identities, caught in limbo between their home countries and their adopted ones. Governments define official, legitimized forms of national identities, the structures into which new arrivals should be integrated. But these same structures are applied to groups who have long resided within countries’ borders—or, in the case of many colonized nations, predated the groups that currently hold power. How can a given group retain a sovereign identity within those national constructs? The map of the world has never remained static. Right now, there are secessionist movements from Scotland to Kurdistan, each with their own particular historical origins and degrees of success. The ways and forms in which groups assert themselves might differ, but what unites them all is a clear sense of communal identity: one that demands to be seen, heard, and acknowledged as legitimate. Read more: Quartz

The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages

April 17th, 2018 by On a residential block at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Gottscheer Hall appears like a mirage from 1945. Blue awnings advertise the space for weddings and events. Inside, an entryway is covered with the saccharin smiles of “Miss Gottschee” contestants from decades past. “Back then you had to know the language to compete,” says 92-year-old Alfred Belay, pointing out his daughter’s beaming face from the 1980s. Nowadays, there are years with only a single contestant in the pageant. Belay has been coming to Gottscheer Hall since he arrived in America more than 60 years ago. Then, the neighborhood was filled with refugees from Gottschee, a settlement that once occupied the highlands of modern-day Slovenia. Now, he’s one of a few thousand remaining speakers of its language, Gottscheerisch. Every Christmas he leads a service in his 600-year-old native language that few understand. “Imagine if someone who plays music suddenly can’t use their fingers,” he says. “We’re still alive but can only remember these things.” Belay and his sister, 83-year-old Martha Hutter, have agreed to let 26-year-old Daniel Bogre Udell film them having a conversation. They walk past the dark wood bar of Gottscheer Hall serving pretzels and sausages, and they climb the stairs to an empty banquet room. Bogre Udell sets up his camera and the siblings begin to banter in their inscrutable Germanic mother tongue. Hearing such a rare language spoken on a residential block of Queens is not unusual for Bogre Udell, the co-founder of a nonprofit called Wikitongues. There are some 800 languages spoken within the 10-mile radius of New York City, which is more than 10 percent of the world’s estimated 7,099 languages. Since he has decided to record all of them, the melting-pot metropolis is a natural launching point. Bogre Udell, who speaks four languages, met Frederico Andrade, who speaks five, at the Parsons New School in New York City. In 2014, they launched an ambitious project to make the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented more than 350 languages, which they are tracking online, and plan to hit 1,000 in the coming years. Read more: National Geographic

Finding the Words for Hope: The Fight for Endangered Languages

November 9th, 2017 by “Iktsuarpok” is a word with no direct English translation. From Inuit, it best translates to “the frustration of waiting for someone to show up.” It is a word imbued with special meaning, and a word that may now be threatened. The Endangered Languages Project classifies the Inuit language as “vulnerable,” with only around 20,000 speakers. For iktsuarpok, it seems, time may be running out. Uncommonly pithy words that native English speakers struggle to pronounce, like “iktsuarpok,” are often presented to the general public as reasons for saving endangered languages. If we lose these languages, the argument goes, we lose their beautiful words as well. But Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, argues that romanticizing unique words from endangered languages is an inadequate way to capture their value to speakers and communities around the world. In an interview with the HPR, he explained that “there is nothing special, per se, about a language being endangered.” Instead, he carries out his work for different reasons. “We have a fairly narrow set of windows of opportunity to understand how language develops and how humans divide their collective experience and metaphorize it,” he said. “The more of these windows that get permanently closed, the less we’ll ever be able to know about what is and what isn’t possible and why.” It is our “vocalized expression of humanness,” as he calls it, that separates humans from animals. Around the world, the race to document and pass down these expressions is on. Leading the way are students and teachers, emboldened by technology to move away from learning hegemonic languages and instead dedicating their time to protecting endangered languages. Read more: Harvard Political Review

Educators Try New Methods to Save American Indian Languages

October 24th, 2017 by The United States is home to 562 federally recognized American Indian Nations, each with its own language. Yet the number of Native Americans with the ability to speak their tribe’s language has decreased over the past century. Now, Indian Nations are trying different ways to expand the number of native speakers, and increase interest in their communities to learn tribal languages. Language in the United States Since the late 1800s, many American Indian children have attended boarding schools. At the time, Indian children were required to attend schools by law, and the federal government forced Indian families to send their children to such schools. The purpose of this requirement was to educate young people, as well as assimilate them in “American ways of life.” The children were separated from their families, and given English names. As many boarding schools were operated by religious groups, the children were also taught Christianity. One of the most lasting effects of these schools was language. The teachers often taught Native American students in English, instead of the language of their parents. AnCita Benally serves as education program manager for the Navajo Nation. She says the boarding school students were told they needed to learn English in order to get a job, earn money and buy a house or nice things. Benally says the effect of these schools has lasted for generations. When the “boarding school generation” started having children, they were only taught English. At the time, many people believed this made sense – for economic and other reasons. But a lot of Native Americans could no longer speak their tribal language well enough to pass it on to their children. Today, even though tribal-run schools exist on their territory, most tribes report that their youngest members have trouble speaking traditional, tribal languages. Fearing a loss of history and culture, the Indian Nations are experimenting with new ways to increase the language ability and interest of tribal members. Read more: Voice of America

Carrying On His Great Grandfather’s Work, A Kansas Professor Helps Keep Their Language Alive

October 22nd, 2017 by As a kid, Andrew McKenzie had an unusual affinity for languages. He took French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish). But that wasn't enough. "I started to teach myself different languages, like Latin and Greek and Basque and Turkish," he remembers. "I would drive into the city to a bookstore, and they’d have a section with language books. I'd say, 'I'm just going to learn this language because the book has the prettiest font.'" So it's not surprising that McKenzie ended up as a professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas. But it turns out there's another reason why he's uniquely qualified for his area of research, which involves documenting the endangered language of Oklahoma's Kiowa people. A languages dies when children stop learning it naturally (as opposed to being taught at school) and when there's no documentation. But if it's been documented, a language can be revived (the best example of this is Hebrew). The Kiowa tribe is small, with only about 12,000 members, many of them spread out around the country. Most of the native speakers are in Southwest Oklahoma. “There are only a few dozen speakers, and some people would even estimate fewer," McKenzie says. "And a lot of them are in their 80s and 90s.” By one estimate, Kiowa is among 165 endangered languages in the United States; thousands of languages around the world are also in danger of extinction. Read more: KCUR 89.3

Can translations save India’s endangered ‘mother tongues’?

October 3rd, 2017 by In “Translation as Culture”, an article which theorises her work with Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes of the irreducible emotional and ethical charge of translating from the mother tongue: “...translation in the narrow also a peculiar act of reparation – toward the language of the inside, a language in which we are ‘responsible’, the guilt of seeing it as one language among many...I translate from my mother tongue.” Spivak’s words touch on the slippery affective terrain that opens up when we call a language “mother”, and seek to transcribe this “intimate” tongue in an “alien” sign-system: a site that is both personal and political, fraught with identity and difference, love and loss, guilt and responsibility, ridden with the angst of separation and the anxiety of reparation. Always already strained, these filial relations are further fractured by the dysfunctional contexts in which literary translators operate today – multicultural yet hegemonic, globalised yet often segregated or displaced. What it generates is at best a complicated sense of linguistic belonging – to an enormous, broken family of languages, with multiple mothers, one’s own and those of others, in which degrees of kinship, equations of power, loyalties and alliances, the rules of engagement and the stakes of representation are forever shifting. Read more:

Indigenous dictionary may save the Miriwoong language from extinction

September 10th, 2017 by Miriwoong is considered critically endangered — on the brink of completely disappearing — but a group in the remote Kimberley is making sure that does not happen. The first official Miriwoong dictionary has been published by Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg), a small language and cultural centre in Kununurra. "It's the language of the land and our people," MDWg senior language consultant David Newry said. The language is native to the Miriwoong people of the East Kimberley and Northern Territory. The remaining fluent speakers are elderly, so the dictionary is a critical step in ensuring the language survives. The linguists and consultants at MDWg consider language as synonymous with identity. They believe saving Miriwoong will help save their connection to land and culture. "We are just proud to be Miriwoong … we want to get our language back and teach it to other generations," Mr Newry said. "It describes the life around Miriwoong people and the way [we] communicate with each other, the connection that we have. "[It] is really important for family connection." Read more: ABC News