The Race to Document Endangered Languages, Now That We Have the Technology

It was a balmy day in Taiwan in November 2019, and I was rummaging through the Family Mart adjoined to the Qishan Bus Station. It was my last chance for 9V batteries and spicy tuna rice balls before taking a taxi into the mountains, where many of the remaining Indigenous languages of the island are spoken, the rest having been replaced by Chinese—the language of settlers from the Asian mainland who slowly took over the arable plainsland over the last few hundred years, as well as of the current ROC regime.

The 16 Indigenous languages still spoken in Taiwan today—the Formosan group—are tragically endangered, with three Formosan languages down to a single-digit number of speakers and a fourth rapidly encroaching. The languages are very well documented in some areas of their grammar and very poorly in others. The available documentation is the result of efforts by community members who create resources for their language’s revitalization movement and from local and foreign scholars.

The goal of my PhD dissertation project is to investigate one of the most poorly documented aspects of language. And I’m going to use a secret weapon, which I bought at B&H. To record, I use a Sony PCM-M10 recorder and a Røde Videomic, which I bought in a $379 bundle marketed to aspiring YouTubers, which I am not. Thankfully, it’s a directional (or ‘shotgun’) microphone, which records whatever you point it at louder than sound coming from other directions. This has allowed me to record analyzable elusive data in a sawmill, during a military drill, and while surrounded by dogs. (Not at the same time, luckily!)

The gaping hole in documentary linguistics which requires such equipment is something called prosody, which is easy to feel but hard to hear.

Read more: Gizmodo

Lost words: The struggle to save Turkey’s disappearing languages

To reach her home, Ms Vaic, a 90-year-old woman from Turkey’s northeast Black Sea region, must climb a steep hill to the village of Xigoba, where she lives in a traditional wooden house.

Here in the hills of Hopa, the traditional language spoken by the people is Homshetsi. It is one of many endangered languages in the country and speaking it is dear to Ms Vaic’s heart.

She tells Middle East Eye that she counts on traditions such as holiday gatherings to help it survive. In Turkish, her village is called Basoba and it is that name you see depicted on road signs. 
 
With her daughter-in-law helping to translate from Homshetsi to Turkish, Ms Vaic says she also learned Turkish in school, where speaking her native language was prohibited.

“The teachers did not like it when we spoke Homshetsi. They would ask us to open our palms and act like they would hit [them] with the ruler if we spoke. They didn’t hit us though.”

The Homshetsi are one of Turkey’s minority ethnic groups, alongside the Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians and Zazas who help make up Turkey’s current population of just over 80 million. 

The republic has come a long way since the 1980 coup, when the constitution was designed to ban the public use of minority languages. Still, the damage done in those dark days makes the task of protecting these ethnic tongues much harder, members of three minority groups told Middle East Eye.

The next generation of Homshetsi, Laz and Syriac people of Turkey may not be able to speak their mother tongues, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which classifies three languages in the country as extinct and 15 more as endangered.

This is a region that has been home to countless peoples and cultures for thousands of years. 

Read more: Middle East Eye

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of Alaska Native culture, but they are disappearing fast

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of culture among Alaska Natives, but apart from a handful of exceptions they are endangered. 

There are 21 Indigenous languages officially recognized by the State of Alaska, but every year there are fewer proficient speakers of these as elders are lost and the power of Western culture exerts powerful influences among young people.

“The land we call Alaska is home to around two dozen Native languages, spoken in and near Alaska for many thousands of years. Each Alaska Native language is a treasure beyond value, holding cultural knowledge of a unique people, a unique history, and a unique way of viewing life,” the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council wrote in its 2020 report. 

However, “every Indigenous language in Alaska faces threats from colonial English-only practices, and nearly all of them are critically endangered,” the Council said in its latest report. 

The Council compiles a report to the governor and state Legislature every two years on the state of Indigenous languages. The language Council was formed by the state Legislature in 2012.

There are only rough approximations of the numbers of fluent speakers and their age ranges for each Alaska Native language, but surveys provide some indication. 

According to the Council’s 2020 report, one language — the Doogh Qunag of Holikackuk — now has no living proficient speakers. In the Dena’ina language of Southcentral Alaska, there are only five proficient speakers. In the Dihthaad Xt’een Ian Aandeeg language of Tanacross, in eastern Interior Alaska, there are only 10.

In the Ahtna language of the Copper River region, known as Koht’aene Kenaege, there are 15. Of the Tlingit language of Southeast Alaska, Lingit Yoo X’atangi, there are 60 proficient speakers.

The list goes on and on.

Read more: Anchorage Press

Why Are So Many Languages Dying Out?

Endangered vernaculars have been dying out at unprecedented rates since the 1960s. Invariably, they give way to one of the world’s more dominant languages such as Arabic, English, Mandarin or Spanish. Now, more than 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 or so languages are thought to be at risk of extinction, some with just a handful of elderly native speakers left.

“This isn’t a normal or stable flux,” says Anna Belew, outreach coordinator at the Endangered Languages Project, which seeks to support efforts to sustain endangered languages. “What we’re looking at is a mass-extinction event.” Out of the roughly 700 languages that are known to have fallen silent in all of human history, more than 30 percent have gone extinct at some point during the last 60 years.

Read more: Discover Magazine

Meet The Woman Who Created An App To Save Her Endangered Language

After the Vietnam War, Annie Vang’s parents escaped persecution in Laos and traversed the Mekong River in the dead of night to seek safety in Thailand. “My family had no choice but to flee or die,” she says.

Vang and her family are Hmong, an ethnic and cultural group who lost their land—and way of life—after siding with the U.S. in the fight against Communism. Like so many other Hmong people, Vang’s family resettled in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. in the late ’70s. Growing up in Iowa, Vang remembers being bullied for having an accent and “looking different” than everyone else. “I was told to go back to my country every day,” she says. “I just wanted to be like everyone else and assimilate and forget about my Hmong roots.”

Yet as an adult, the 44-year-old is doing everything in her power to preserve her cultural history. For more than a decade, the app developer has been digitally documenting the Hmong language with HmongPhrases, an app she created to teach the Hmong language to English speakers. “It is critical we capture this, so that our language, legacy, and stories can live on,” she says.

Read more: Elle

Saving Languages From Extinction, With The Help Of AI

Let’s begin with a little quiz: Across the earth, there are 7 continents and 197 countries. How many languages are spoken?

The answer is around 7,000, but if this number surprises you, it’s because you suffer from the distorted perspective that half of the 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet express themselves or communicate through only about 20 of them (Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese…), while the other 97% of these 7,000 languages have a total number of speakers that does not exceed 4% of the population.

Our world linguistic heritage, as rich it may be, is very fragile. The overwhelming majority of these 7,000 languages have no written tradition, and today are only spoken by a handful of old people. This heritage is both the fruit and the guarantor of humans’ cultural diversity, and is no less significant than the biodiversity of plant and animal species. The crisis it faces can be considered the sixth major extinction that threatens the world.

“We estimate that 50% of the 7,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century, a rate to be compared with the 26% of mammal species or 14% of bird species threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” says Evangelia Adamou, a linguist at the CNRS laboratory, LACITO (Languages and Civilizations with an Oral Tradition).

This threat of massive linguistic extinction is what motivated researchers to create the Pangloss collection in 1995, named after a character in Voltaire’s “Candide,” whose name in Greek means, “all languages.” Equipped with a website making it accessible to the general public, this collection is to linguistic diversity what protected areas are to biodiversity. Its sound library has been enriched over the years and now contains more than 3,600 audio or video recordings in 170 languages, nearly half of which are transcribed and annotated.

Read more: Worldcrunch

Chinese minority languages among those at risk of dying out, with no one left to speak them, study finds

Dozens of languages and dialects in China are in danger of disappearing, a new study has found.

According to the study by website WordFinder, based on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 25 of China’s spoken languages are “critically endangered”.

This puts it seventh in the world behind the United States, with 82 languages critically endangered), Brazil, with 45, Australia, with 42, India (41), Indonesia (32) and Canada (30).

“Languages are about more than vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar,” says WordFinder editor Michael Kwan. “Languages provide insight into how a cultural group views and interacts with the world around them, as well as the history of the people in a particular area.”

The latest census (2009-2013), released last month, revealed that 28 per cent of critically endangered languages are spoken in just three countries – the US (which accounts for 13.5 per cent), Brazil (7.4 per cent) and Australia (6.9 per cent) – and that they and seven other countries account for more than half of the critically endangered languages in the world.

The study found that more than 291 million people aged five and over speak only English at home in the US, with only 45 using the critically endangered Chinook Jargon, an indigenous language originating as a pidgin (or simplified) trade language used in the Pacific northwest.

In Australia, more than 17 million people speak only English (around 73 per cent of the population) at home compared to just 156 people who speak the Aboriginal Miriwoong language (0.00066 per cent). Fewer than 20 of those speak it fluently.

Language experts say the decline in minority languages is an unwelcome trend being felt across the globe.

Read more: South China Morning Post

Language and identity: the stories behind the world’s endangered languages

As Europeans began to colonize North America, Native Americans were placed in reservation boarding schools, where students were taught English and subjected to forced cultural assimilation.

This forced assimilation took a toll on linguistic diversity on the continent and as a result, North American indigenous languages have been on the decline since 1790.

For human biology sophomore Alexa Oldman, language revitalization is critical to keeping indigenous North American languages and identity alive.

“It’s important for not only me but all other Native Americans to revitalize the language, because that is a part of who we are,” Oldman said. “Our ancestors fought to keep the traditions alive and try to speak the language, even though they were reprimanded for it.” 

Since the age of two, Oldman has participated in cultural events and learned traditional Native American dances. 

She said she believes language preservation efforts are crucial given the centuries of struggle her ancestors endured in order to keep their culture and language alive under colonization.

Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Her grandmother was among those who were placed in English boarding schools, resulting in language loss.

“My grandma had attended a boarding school, and her mom and dad were both fluent speakers in Anishinaabemowin,” Oldman said. “Due to having to go to the boarding schools, my grandma then lost how to speak their own language.” 

Despite her grandmother losing her family’s native tongue, Oldman said her family has managed to pass Native American customs down the line. 

“I had attended ceremonies — Native ceremonies — when I was younger as well, and up until now,” Oldman said. “Even my mom herself grew up the same way too. So, that’s why she taught me my cultural ways. … There’s Seven Grandfather Teachings that we learned about when we were younger, and that we learn to live by and follow throughout our life. And then we learn about the four different directions. And we practice Sun Dance, which comes from my Northern Arapaho tribe out in Wyoming, which is only specific to them.”

These teachings continued to influence and shape Oldman as a young adult. 

“The Seven Grandfather Teachings, and a few that would be respect, truth, and honesty,” Oldman said. “And because we live by that, then it teaches you to respect people, respect your peers. Be truthful and be honest in certain situations.”

Anishinaabemowin’s status, according to the Endangered Language Project, or ELP is threatened, with about 1,500 native speakers left.

Read more: State News

On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

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: The Epoch Times

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

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

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

Saving an Endangered Language

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