Revitalizing an Endangered Language: Part I


How is it possible to revitalize an endangered language?

When a language is suppressed by the state (such as Catalan in Spain and all of the Native languages of the Americas), it will either disappear or be sustained secretly by committed speakers. Then when state restrictions lift, the remaining speakers may be elders who are wary of attempts to make the language public, while at the same time they long for their culture to be valued again. Elders are crucial to language revitalization, because the primary means for language to be taught is intergenerational transfer – from an adult to a child.

Today, the most familiar place for intergenerational transfer of culture and language is in the schoolroom.  An adult, either alone or in a small team, transfers their knowledge to a roomful of children and youth.  You know this isn’t easy, for any subject. But with long-term commitment of effort and resources, it has worked for endangered languages.

UNESCO distinguishes four levels of endangerment in languages, based on intergenerational transfer.

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List of programs with a focus in language documentation and revitalization

Shannon Bischoff recently put together a list of linguistics programs with a focus in language documentation and revitalization on his website. This list is extremely useful for anybody looking at applying to graduate programs this year. The full link is below:

Algonquian Linguistic Atlas

Fun with the interactive Algonquian language map

If you don’t know your Plains Cree from your Innu, this map can help

By Arika Okrent | 9:18am ET

There was once a linguistic landscape of incredible diversity in North America. While the continent of Europe has three main language families — Romance, Germanic, and Slavic — Native American languages can be grouped into about 30 language families. One of the largest, with languages that at one time covered an area reaching all the way from New England to the Rocky Mountains, is the Algonquian family. Algonquian languages are still spoken in Canada and the northern U.S. Two of them — Cree and Ojibwa — are estimated to have over 50,000 speakers. But even the healthiest native languages need active support to ensure their survival.

The goal of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas is “to make sure that the beautiful Algonquian languages and the cultures they embody will be heard and spoken by many more generations to come.” It isn’t just a repository of words and stories though. It is organized in a way that lets you explore the similarities and differences between the languages, and see how they are distributed by place.

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Endangered immigrant languages

A longstanding interest of mine has been the history of language, or the history of what some have called language ecology (Mufwene) or language dynamics (Wichmann). That is, what general trends have languages followed over time in terms of speaker population, rate of language change, incidence of language shift, or rate of language attrition or endangerment? How have events like the Agrarian Revolution or the emergence of the internet affected language dynamics? In other words, what are the social, political, technological, and economic forces that have shaped language demographics over time?

One important question in this field is what are the causes and influences on language endangerment? A potential area for investigation into this question that is often overlooked by linguists working on endangered languages is immigrant language communities. There are very strong similarities between the process of language shift from first- to third-generation immigrants, and the process of language endangerment whereby youth cease to speak the language. Thus it was gratifying to see the article below, which talks specifically about endangered immigrant languages. Check out the full article here.

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Culture is key for Aboriginal youth

Suicide rates in Australia’s Indigenous youth are among the highest in the world. In the Sydney suburb of La Perouse, charity organisation First Hand Solutions is convinced it has part of the answer.

Ella Archibald-Binge

Nestled on the headland of Botany Bay, the La Perouse community has not been protected from the issues plaguing much of Indigenous Australia.

Peter Cooley of charity organisation First Hand Solutions said the community had a lot to tackle.

“We’ve seen our youth in and out of juvenile detention centres and sadly we’ve experienced our young people committing suicide,” he said.

“I’m a big believer, through my experience of working with youth, that it’s this dispossession of culture that is playing a part there somewhere.”

A new report by the University of New South Wales supported Mr Cooley’s theory.

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Chili Say What? Linguistics Helps Pinpoint Pepper’s Origins

April 17, 2014 2:52 PM ET

Count us among those who just can’t get enough chili pepper news.

These spicy fruits are beloved around the world for their ability to sex up nearly any cuisine. They’re the world’s most widely grown spice crop, so it’s hard to imagine that their reach was once limited to the early farmers in what is now eastern Mexico.

Now we know just a little bit more about where they came from, thanks to archaeologists using paleobiolinguistics — namely, studying ancient languages for words that mean pepper — along with the more traditional ways of figuring out how and where plants are domesticated.

To sleuth a crop’s origins, scientists typically use plants’ genetic makeup in geographic areas with the most diversity and where they have found archaeological remains.

This study added linguistics — “the earliest linguistic evidence that a cultivated chili pepper existed” — to the mix, according to an international team of researchers led by University of California, Davis plant scientist Paul Gepts. They also modeled the areas most environmentally suitable to the plants and their ancestors. ​

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