Finding the Words for Hope: The Fight for Endangered Languages

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

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

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’?

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 sense…is 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

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

Inventor of Kryptonian aims to revitalize endangered languages

UBC-O’s Dr. Christine Schreyer — an associate professor teaching anthropology and linguistics — went to Krypton. At least, as close any of us will ever get.

In 2011, Warner Brothers approached Schreyer to develop the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel.

Schreyer began her journey quite young — she has wanted to be an anthropologist since she was twelve. She’s also always been interested in Indigenous peoples, and completed a directed study on the Cree language during her undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg. In graduate school, she compared the oral stories of the Chapleau Cree First Nation to records from the Hudson’s Bay Company and worked with the Loon River Cree and Taku River Tlingit First Nations.

This research focused on how languages are embedded in landscape and how people can learn about language in tandem with reclaiming knowledge of the land. She currently does field work in Papua New Guinea documenting Kala, which is spoken in six villages and one of the country’s 862 languages.

What does this have to do with Krypton?

Schreyer’s background in reviving and protecting endangered languages made her the perfect candidate to create an imaginary language — with one big difference. Her research studied the interaction between language and land, yet the fictional world of Krypton cannot be visited. Right?

Wrong, explained Schreyer. The world of Krypton was so lavishly imagined by the production designer for Man of Steel that she gained important evidence from visiting the movie set and by studying other pre-existing texts.

“The world of Krypton was so well-imagined … there’s so much in there I feel that is not on-screen,” said Schreyer. “Alex McDowell — production designer for Man of Steel — is famous for developing these really intense worlds with so much backstory to them … There was so much culture and land that I got to see. I guess I did get to go to Krypton.”

Being on set while making the language brought Schreyer physically to the land of Krypton as imagined, and helped her make decisions when forming new words and the writing system.

Read more: The Ubyssey

Why Do We Need To Save Dying Languages?

Languages Around The World
While it may seem like only a handful of languages are used around the world, the reality is that a vast number are spoken by people in different countries and cultures. In fact, linguists suggest that around 6,500 languages are currently used for daily communication needs. Many of these are not well known and are utilized by indigenous peoples. The diversity in languages, however, is declining. Over 400 languages were lost over the last 100 years, at a rate of 1 every 3 months and approximately 50% of the languages remaining today are expected to disappear over the next century. In other words, 1 language will go extinct every 2 weeks. Some researchers believe that the percentage is higher.

Why Do Languages Become Extinct?
As previously mentioned, thousands of the current living languages are spoken by indigenous individuals. Because these languages are usually only spoken at home by older generations and not typically taught in schools, children do not become fluent speakers. Additionally, once these children become adults, they are less likely to need knowledge of the indigenous language in their daily lives and instead adapt more commonly spoken tongues (like English, Mandarin, Arabic, Swahili, and Chinese). Because of this movement toward more dominant languages, these individuals do not go on to teach the indigenous languages to their children, believing that the dominant language is more valuable for future employment opportunities. Over time, the remaining speakers pass away, causing the language to become extinct.

The Importance Of Language Diversity
Many individuals question the importance of language diversity, likening language extinction to “survival of the fittest” or viewing it as a personal choice that individuals choose not to continue using their native tongue. Linguists are quick to point out, however, that when a language dies, a wide range of information is lost forever. The oral traditions of an entire culture are gone and with that, the songs, anecdotes, and historical occurrences that document an important piece of human history are also lost. Information about the medicinal value of plants and habits of local animals becomes a mystery to future generations as well.

Other researchers point out that it is not only information that disappears, but also a unique way of looking at the world. Each language has its own phrases, expressions, and grammatical rules that provide a different point of view and understanding of the world around us. The language a person speaks also affects the way they think and process information. In fact, indigenous languages are often considered more complex in nature than a widely spoken language like English, which has been simplified over the years in order to be more widely applicable. Without language diversity, the world becomes slowly more homogenous in a variety of ways.

Still, other experts suggest that having a unique language shared by a specific culture facilitates communication and encourages collaboration among people. These lesser-known languages also provide a sense of cultural identity and of communal belonging.

Read more:

Revitalising endangered languages

Languages are considered endangered when their last fluent speakers reach old age and when children are no longer learning it as their primary tongue. The UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger reveals that 18 of the world’s 2,464 officially ‘endangered’ languages have just one living speaker (Bishuo, spoken in Cameroon, for instance). With the exception of just three (Patwin, Tolowa and Wintu-Nomlaki, Native American languages found in California), these are all based in the so-called ‘global south’. The Handbook of Endangered Languages acknowledges that economic, political, cultural and social power is held by those who speak the ‘majority languages’ while those that don’t are often marginalised and under pressure to shift towards learning a more ‘global’ language.

Not all people experiencing language shift feel marginalised though. Many Nigerians, for example, happily embrace the use of English as a lingua franca, viewing it as progressive. Others however, see their native language as a significant marker of ethnic and national identity. Nigerian artist Adé Bantu expressed this in his song No More No Vernacular, a critique of the Nigerian school system which prohibits children from speaking indigenous languages.

Read more: Geographical

Can virtual reality help save endangered Pacific languages?

The Pacific is the most linguistically rich region in the world, with Papua New Guinea alone being home to a staggering 850 languages.

Yet experts fear that widespread language loss could be the future for the region.

To draw attention to the issue, and to document more Pacific languages, Australian researchers are trialling a new way of making their database of languages more exciting and accessible.

To do this, they are turning to virtual reality technology.

“We’ve got this fantastic resource — a database of a thousand endangered languages,” lead researcher Dr Nick Thieberger from the University of Melbourne said.

“But it’s not very engaging, it’s a bit dull, so we wanted to do something to change that.”

Over the past 15 years, researchers from Australian universities have been digitalising recordings of languages and storing them in the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC).

The database has documented more than 6,000 hours of recordings from over 1,000 languages.

Earlier this year, Dr Thieberger, Dr Rachel Hendry — a lecturer in digital humanities — and media artist Dr Andrew Burrell created a virtual reality experience using files from the database.

Audiences don a pair of virtual reality goggles, allowing them to “fly across” Pacific nations such as Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

As they do so, shards of light emerge that play clips of local languages.

The VR display is currently only exhibited in museums, but the team is working on versions that could be accessed anywhere.

Read more: ABC News

We’d have a better chance of preserving Africa’s dying languages if we learned their history

In 2008, on his first visit to China and India after taking office as prime minister, Britain’s Gordon Brown announced a plan to promote the English language across the world. Brown said he launched a website that would develop the skills of 750,000 teachers, and help two billion people learn English by 2020.

“English does not make us all the same,” Brown noted, but “it makes it possible for us to speak to each other, to better understand each other and so it is a powerful force not just for economics, business, and trade but for mutual respect and progress.”

Brown’s radical plan was considered one of the biggest initiatives in recent times to endorse English as a global language. But 60 years after independence, that’s a luxury rarely afforded to the majority of African languages. Instead of securing a firm place in our daily lives, indigenous languages have instead suffered delegitimization at social, economic, and political spheres. The expanded study of African languages has also been recent, with a majority of the scholarship taking place in European and North American universities. Significant books about Africa’s languages and literary explorations are mostly published by Western publishers like Harvard University, Ohio, and Oxford University Press.

Besides, much of the literature about the history of African languages is also inaccessible to young people—and readers—across the continent. And while research shows the cognitive advantage of knowing more than one language, students of African languages at higher institutions have drastically diminished over the years. As such, the debates about who defines a language, who can claim it, and how it affects a community or a country’s past and present is not being probed or vigorously unpacked.

Read more: Quartz Africa

Saving languages

An entire community had cause to celebrate when 11 Six Nations Polytechnic students graduated with the first bachelor of arts degree in Ogwehoweh languages.

“It’s been a long road to get here, involving countless people over many years of hard work, long hours of curriculum development, and not to mention weeks of studying by each student, but we finally made it,” Rebecca Jamieson, CEO and president of Six Nations Polytechnic, told about 100 people gathered this week in the Ohsweken school’s main hall.

In front of family, community elders and school faculty, seven students were conferred with degrees in Cayuga and four with degrees in Mohawk during a ceremony conducted in Mohawk, Cayuga and English.

Also present were Six Nations elected Chief Ava Hill and several Six Nations councillors, and Brantford councillors John Utley and Richard Carpenter.

Jamieson traced the path from 2012 when the school began work to mount the unique degree program to 2015 when it was accepted by the provincial government. Then she lauded the students for taking their places in the frontlines in effort reclaim the traditional six languages of the Ogwehoweh people. Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Seneca are the other four.

They are languages that a report by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says are critically endangered and could be lost.

Read more: The Brantford Expositor

Saving ‘endangered’ languages in Malaysia

Their feet nimbly tapping out a whirl of steps, the children twirled and swirled to the lively music of Malaysia’s Portuguese Eurasian community.

They earned oohs and ahhs and laughter as they cajoled the seated guests to join in the dancing at a recent cultural event in Kuala Lumpur.

Made up of schoolchildren, the dance troupe is part of efforts by the country’s Portuguese community, whose ancestors settled in Melaka in the 16th century, to preserve its eroding culture.

The loss is keenly felt, particularly in the decreasing use of their native tongue – Melaka Portuguese or Cristang, a Creole language.

With a population of around 1,000, the Melaka Portuguese Settlement – where the young dancers are from – has the highest concentration of Cristang speakers, but many of those below 45 are not fluent.

Cristang is not alone in its plight. Minority languages are rapidly being replaced by English, Malay and Mandarin – the dominant tongues taught in Malaysia’s schools.

Read more: The Straits Times