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Languishing languages: snapshots of efforts around the globe to preserve unique ways of thinking and speaking.

Libu Lakhi ignored his parents. He paid no attention to his classmates. None of them understood why the 18-year old student would leave his village to study something as useless as the Tibetan dialect Namuyi Khatho.


He knew it would not lead to a well-paying, secure job like his parents wanted for him, but he was drawn to studying the language that he could neither speak, read, nor write. "Why did I want to study Tibetan?" Lakhi recently asked himself. "I wanted to study Tibetan because I am Tibetan."

The Namuyi people live in villages throughout the western Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China's Sichuan province. Linguists estimate that 5,000 people speak Namuyi Khatho, mostly older generations. The dialect is a telling way to differentiate them from their Tibetan neighbors, in addition to variations in their Buddhist practices, clothing, and agriculture. Many of these cultural emblems are changing: Tractors are replacing plows, and automobile drives to city restaurants are replacing long festive marches during wedding ceremonies. The Sichuan Chinese dialect and the Nuosu language of the Yi ethnic group are replacing Namuyi Khatho.

"So many other Namuyi Khatho people, when I was growing up, they didn't care. We speak a really different Tibetan dialect, but they don't care if you're able to read or write in Tibetan," Lakhi said. "Sometimes I think in 10 years maybe it will disappear."

Languages come and go, yet the rate of their disappearance has accelerated in recent decades. Of the 6,700 languages spoken worldwide, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) estimates that half may be gone by century's end. Others estimate a more dramatic loss: Alaska Native Language Center founder Michael Krauss predicts that humankind will experience the death or "terminal stage" for 90 percent of the world's languages within this century.

Fortunately, Lakhi is not the only champion of the world's endangered languages. Empowered minority communities across the world are mobilizing to resurrect, revive, or protect their native languages. While they are receiving greater support from governments and institutions than ever before, the challenges they must overcome--urbanization, globalization, environmental change--are likewise accelerating. Models of effective language revitalization do exist. Coupled with renewed movements to deepen cultural pride, activists hope that many languages can avoid being silenced forever.

Dying Dialogues

Clifford Eaglefeathers did not choose to learn English. Born on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, United States, he first heard the language at age six when he attended government boarding school. After an early childhood spent hearing and speaking Cheyenne with family, friends, and the most respected tribal elders, Eaglefeathers' schoolteacher scolded him for speaking his native tongue--a slap on the wrist or relegation to the corner.

Six decades later, no one under 50 speaks fluent Cheyenne. "Things are beginning to change now because the language is not being spoken by our children anymore," said Eaglefeathers, who teaches Native American studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York. "By 2036 we predict the Cheyenne language will be gone, if not sooner."


Some 473 languages are classified as nearly extinct, meaning that only a few elderly speakers are alive and children are not actively learning the language. The Austin, Texas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics estimates that the Western Hemisphere accounts for 182 of those languages on the brink, with 152 in the Pacific, 84 in Asia, 46 in Africa, and 9 in Europe.

Languages disappear for various reasons. Colonized communities forbidden to teach their own language often find the uphill battle of revitalizing it too difficult or painful. Our globalized economy favors a handful of marketable languages rather than indigenous knowledge. As more people move from rural to urban settings--the United Nations expects 60 percent of the world's population to live in cities by 2030--more rural traditions, languages included, are left behind.

Climate change may also be driving language loss. Ice melt and shifting weather patterns are forcing some Arctic peoples to adjust hunting and herding habits, while foreign mining companies and migrant workers reshape the regional population. As life changes, traditional practices and vocabulary disappear. "Sea ice terminology is being forgotten, as sea ice thins and traditional ways of interacting with the ice change," said Lenore Grenoble, a Slavic languages expert at the University of Chicago.

Every language lost drains our ability to understand the past and present. For example, University of California/Berkeley linguist Johanna Nichols has analyzed words used for various crops to trace the modern people of the Caucasus back to the ancient farmers of the Fertile Crescent. Meanwhile, the words spoken by indigenous peoples contain elaborate insights into flora and fauna, much of which is endangered as well. As we lose traditional vocabulary, we lose important ecological knowledge.

Researchers are also fretting about losing the messages that an endangered language was invented to express. Each language contains words and phrases that are untranslatable to common tongues. Entire concepts are understood only by the language's speakers. Most troubling, the loss of a language very often leads to the loss of identity. "All the kids today say, 'I am a Cheyenne,' but what constitutes a Cheyenne? What constitutes the tribal membership?" Eaglefeathers said. "Without language, without culture, without history, who are we?"

Languages Reborn

The Hawaiian language is inseparable from the fabric of Hawaiian culture. The word aloha is not only a greeting, it also embodies the Hawaiian philosophy of joyful unity. Chants serve as guides for traditional voyagers: The songs recall constellation maps that have helped Hawaiians navigate between Pacific islands for centuries.

Soon after the United States annexed their islands, the only language that Hawaiian schools were allowed to teach was English. By the early 1980s, the number of Hawaiian children who spoke their native tongue had dwindled below 50. The language would likely be extinct today if not for the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. Renewed interest and pride in Hawaiian culture across the islands resurrected traditions of hula (dancing), mele (songs), and oli (chants). "Like a dormant volcano coming to life again, the Hawaiians are erupting with all the pent-up energy and frustrations of people on the make," said activist George Kanahele in 1979.

Parents boycotted the English-only public school system, inspiring a group of Hawaiian teachers to establish the organization Aha Punana Leo ("nest of voices") in 1983. Following the example of the Maori people of New Zealand, the group developed its own curriculum and taught pre-school children only in Hawaiian, even during English courses. The state eventually overturned the English-only law after years of community-led pressure. Today, some 2,000 native Hawaiian students attend one of the 11 Aha Punana Leo preschools or similarly structured immersion elementary and secondary programs. The University of Hawai'i/Hilo offers Hawaiian language courses, allowing students to pursue bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees without leaving a Hawaiian language environment.

Kaimana Barcarse was exposed to Hawaiian throughout childhood but thought little of it. After high school, he landed what he considered to be a decent job with a local trucking company. Yet his family was concerned--he was becoming another "local boy," grabbing a job in the city and forgetting his roots, his education, his language. Barcarse returned to school, enrolling in a Hawaiian language class at UH/Hilo to meet the university's non-English language requirements. "It really reconnected me," he said. "Diving deeper into the way my ancestors taught, it expanded my worldview. It expanded my understanding for the beauty of language, the beauty of my culture." Barcarse, an ethnozoology lecturer at UH/Hilo, now leads Hawaiian-language canoe voyages and classes with Aha Punana Leo, hosts a Hawaiian-language radio show, and plans to raise his children as fluent Hawaiian speakers.

Researchers who developed a reading program for native Hawaiian students traveled to the Navajo Nation in Arizona in the 1980s with hopes that the program could be adapted for use in tribal schools by incorporating Navajo language and culture. The program not only improved students' grasp of the Navajo language, it boosted their cultural pride and led them to excel in multiple subjects. Mean scores on English comprehension increased from 58 percent to 91 percent. The students became bilingual and biliterate, and they developed superior English reading, oral language, and mathematics skills compared to a matched peer group outside the program.

Full immersion programs for students learning Navajo as a second language have since appeared in two Arizona schools. Those students, while attaining high levels of Navajo language proficiency, have consistently outperformed their peers in English-only classrooms on assessments of English reading, writing, and mathematics, according to Teresa McCarty, co-director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University. "The bilingual education programs of the past are no longer appropriate for many Native [American] children today, who often enter school speaking English and have varying degrees of exposure to the indigenous language in their homes and communities," McCarty said. "Increasingly, the goal in these settings is finding a balance between language and culture revitalization and ensuring that students achieve high levels of literacy and oral language development in both the indigenous language and English, along with mastering academic content."

Although similar immersion programs are spreading, especially across North America, developing them is a challenge that requires a significant amount of indigenous language teaching materials and fluent teachers. For the Evenki people of northern Siberia, for example, many of the 5,000 native speakers are too preoccupied with managing reindeer herds and day-to-day survival to concentrate on language instruction, and many teachers are unwilling to move to the nomadic schools that have been set up in the countryside. If children were to travel to schools in nearby cities, they would receive instruction only in Russian; Evenki-language text-books simply do not exist. "In the nomadic schools, kids can get to a basic level of education, but not much further," Grenoble said. "It's closing doors for their future. That's the big controversy. If they're taught only in Evenki, they could never get into a Russian university."

Governments and charitable foundations are beginning to offer greater resources for revitalization efforts. The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, for example, has helped support the development of multimedia projects for the Kamilaroi people of New South Wales, Australia, to use in their schools. Software released last year provides a searchable Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay language dictionary with songs, stories, and games--a significant undertaking for a people with no more than three fluent Gamilaraay speakers.

For Aboriginal communities whose language loss is linked to painful histories of forced assimilation, the software may help initiate language education, according to David Nathan, the archivist of the University of London's Endangered Languages Project. "It's a really hard, big, emotional thing for people to start or restart speaking their language. So if you're going to produce resources for people, they need to have a positive relationship with those resources, to love them," said Nathan, who coordinated the Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay project. "We were never under the illusion that you could learn a language from a CD or computer, but that's what can catalyze."

Other technologies, such as hand-held computer devices that automatically translate between languages, are also being introduced in communities across the world, including the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "It is still a very hard problemto go from any language to any language, but I think it's fair to say, with current technology, we're able to get the meaning across," said Emily Bender, a University of Washington linguist who develops language analysis software.


Perfecting such devices might help the Kamilaroi become bilingual. But, like most indigenous communities, the Kamilaroi have limited financial resources for language education. Nathan warns against being "romanced" by expensive technological fixes that may not be effective. "To me, it's missing the point. We're not really interested in enabling machines to speak the language," he said. "Language is what comes out of your spirit. What's going to do it is hard work by passionate people."

Soul Revival

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation has made several attempts to establish revitalization programs. But every change in tribal administration brings new education ideas, and progress stalls. Preschools incorporated language training until the community realized that, without continuing the education into grade schools, none of the children were learning the language. Master apprenticeships (one-on-one training between a language speaker and younger member of the community) have also failed to produce new Cheyenne speakers. "We've tried many ways to preserve our language," Clifford Eaglefeathers said. "We've tried many different forms without success. We've gone nowhere."

Frustrated with conventional revitalization strategies, Eaglefeathers and other traditional Cheyennes are convinced that the only way for their language to be saved is for their people to form a deeper connection with traditions such as the sun dance. During this four-day-and-night ceremony, the Cheyenne call to the spiritual world for guidance and support. It was at these ceremonies where Eaglefeathers, at the age of five, first heard the sacred songs. "Cheyennes are very spiritual people. The ceremonial way of life never left us, even when the government tried to eradicate Indian religious practices," he said. "I think that is the only way we can preserve our way of life, our languages."


In 2002, Eaglefeathers and his wife Karyl discovered century-old recordings of the sun dance songs at a university music archive. At first, the recordings worried the couple and sun dance leaders. Outsiders are not allowed to participate in the sun dance, and the sacred language is not supposed to be used outside the ceremony lest its power be misused. After much discussion, the community decided to take a risk. "They said, 'We talked about it and there's no other choice now--it must be done. We must record and write down what we know, or we can see it will be lost forever.' And that is unthinkable," said Karyl Eaglefeathers, a folklorist at Empire State College. The couple digitized the recordings, helping ceremonial leaders restrict access to especially sensitive material. A sun dance priest has since used the songs to help at least one young Cheyenne prepare for his sun dance ceremony.

Around the world, more communities are hoping music will strengthen their collective identities and help revive fading languages. In Europe, the annual Liet International song festival has featured the region's best young musicians per forming in traditional, minority languages. Last year's performeances included Sami metal rock, Occitan electronica, and Celtic power pop. In Australia and New Zealand, the countries' cultural ministers have joined forces to create an Indigenous Contemporary Music Action Plan. With indigenous recording studios, record labels, and broadcasters producing artists such as award-winning Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who sings in the Gumatj dialect of Yolrju Matha, the governments hope that a more effective indigenous-led industry will boost language revitalization efforts.

In northern Tanzania, some 250 Hadza continue their hunter-gatherer ways despite cattle herders, onion farmers, and game poachers encroaching on the bush. Tanzania's president wants the Hadza "to be transformed" through schooling, housing, and steady jobs. In response, Tanzanian hip-hop producer Gsan Rutta and New York-based punk record label owner Elizabeth Smith traveled to the Hadza in 2008 to record and translate traditional and contemporary Hadza songs, which were then distributed to local safari lodges and national museums. In addition to raising awareness of Hadza culture for outsiders, Smith envisions her project as a way to help the Hadza preserve their traditions and language for future generations. "There is a unique worldview encoded in song texts that is lost when a language disappears," she said. "If language is the identity of a culture, then music and song are the soul of a culture."


In Tibet, Libu Lakhi has also seized music as a tool for language preservation and revitalization. His Tibetan Endangered Music Project oversees teams of local school children who travel throughout the plateau's villages to record and digitally convert as many traditional Tibetan songs as possible before they are forgotten forever. So far, the project has preserved more than 1,300 lullabies, love songs, and other traditional melodies. "Younger generations are just following new types of songs, so traditional songs are threatened," Lakhi said. "The music is taken for granted ... make the music survive and at the same time you are making the language survive."

Many of the world's languages will inevitably disappear as cultures undergo drastic and rapid change. Language preservation and restoration is not always a priority, especially where communities struggle to meet their basic human needs. Yet many of the world's endangered languages can be saved if the global community--including governments, foundations, academia, and concerned citizens--places greater emphasis on supporting minority group-led efforts to connect with their cultures. The result, a more culturally diverse world, would enrich the lives of us all.

Ben Block is World Watch's staff writer.

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Author:Block, Ben
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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