ABC article on dying languages
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Apr 10 14:10:39 UTC 2002
Tongue-Tied: Linguists and Native Speakers Fight to Preserve Dying
By Michael S. James
April 8 Geneva Woomayoyah Navarro, 76, grew up translating English for
her Comanche grandparents after their forcible relocation to Oklahoma, 5
miles from their nearest Comanche neighbor.
"My grandmother couldn't speak English or understand it," she explained.
"So at mealtime she preferred that we would all speak [Comanche] so she
could understand." Like many in her English-speaking generation, Navarro
later moved away from home in pursuit of education and jobs, marrying a
non-Comanche in the process.
Now she is stunned to find that the language of her youth is dying. Fewer
than 900 people, most of them elderly, are believed to speak Comanche.
That leaves Navarro with a deep sense of loss.
"Our language is our culture," she said. "It holds our culture together.
It tells us where we are where we come from."
The Comanche story is not uncommon.
Half of approximately 6,000 languages currently spoken worldwide are
endangered to some degree or dying out, according to a recent report by
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
In the United States, fewer than 150 Native American languages out of
hundreds that once existed remain, according to UNESCO. And every single
one is in some jeopardy, as are hundreds of other native languages in
Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America. The same is true for
languages in locations as far-flung as Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia and
In Australia, for example, the Jiwarli language's last native speaker died
in 1976, according to Peter K. Austin, a professor at the University of
Melbourne. In fact, after decades of government suppression into the
1970s, dozens of Australian Aboriginal languages are just about finished,
according to UNESCO.
"Many of the languages are becoming extinct during our lifetimes," said G.
Aaron Broadwell, a linguist at the State University of New York at Albany,
and chairman of the Linguistic Society of America's Committee for
Endangered Languages and Their Preservation. "The last speakers are dying
Globalization Speeds Disappearance
"All the evidence that we have seems to suggest that the rate of language
extinction is accelerating," said Broadwell, who blames globalization.
"All the people who were living in the corners of the world sort of
isolated from the nation-states are now in contact with the rest of the
As contact increases, it becomes harder for people to get along without
learning and dealing extensively in the language and economy of the
dominant culture. Eventually, younger generations might see less use in
learning or teaching the native language, or leave traditional areas in
pursuit of jobs.
In that way, without a concerted effort to preserve it, a vibrant language
can become endangered in a few generations.
"The speakers themselves don't really notice their kids aren't speaking
their language anymore," said Douglas Whalen, president of the Endangered
Language Fund at Yale University. "What's really sad is when they don't
notice they're making that decision."
Sometimes language extinction is accelerated by government policy or
repression, or laws requiring the dominant language for education or
"It can be a very sad thing," said Broadwell, who has studied minority
languages in the United States and Mexico. "Often, the last speakers can
feel isolated. They have no one to speak to in their native tongue and the
stories and the oral histories they tell in their native tongue they know
will die with them."
Added Steven Bird, a computational linguist at the University of
Pennsylvania: "Imagine you are the last surviving speaker of English in a
hostile world that has no interest in English. That's what it must feel
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