U community resuscitates dead languages

By By Shawn Mansell

By Shawn Mansell

Linguists estimate that by the end of century, as many as 90 percent of the world’s spoken languages will have died.

Through the efforts of the Center for American Indian Languages and the linguistics department, the U is doing its part to learn about and save endangered languages.

The U linguistics department offers an undergraduate certificate program in the revitalization of endangered languages. The department has also proposed a graduate version of the certificate.

Marianna Di Paolo, chairwoman of the linguistics department, said the proposed graduate certificate would be valuable for those wanting to do research.

“We hope that it will encourage more people to become interested in doing field work on languages that are documented, but it will be especially geared toward providing people with the basic tools to work on revitalization projects,” Di Paolo said.

Lyle Campbell, director of the Center for American Indian Languages, has worked on revitalization projects. He has traveled to places such as El Salvador, Argentina and Brazil and has helped in the revival of languages, but much of his work involves recording and cataloging languages that won’t or can’t be saved.

“It just breaks your heart when one of these languages dies,” Campbell said.

He has worked with more than a dozen now-dead languages, and each time one dies he sees it as a global loss. According to Campbell, each language has unique ways of expressing and explaining social problems and the potential solutions.

Campbell and Di Paolo said they are both aware of misconceptions people have about language revitalization. Campbell said some people view the culture and communities in which these languages are used as “living museums,” a notion he dismisses.

Di Paolo said that many people don’t know that languages can die. She also said that people falsely believe that the endangered languages are primitive.

The negative stereotypes don’t help.

Campbell has observed that when people have a negative view of their own culture, the language suffers. He has encountered that theme throughout his work.

Each language presents different challenges for researchers.

Campbell recalled one California tribe that restricted its younger members from having access to the language for fear its words would be used in rap music. He also remembers an incident in Nicaragua when he wasn’t able to converse with one language’s last living native speaker because she was ill.

“I didn’t want to cause her any stress or harm,” he said.

Challenges aside, Campbell has found his work to be very satisfying and not without success stories.

“The most rewarding cases are when we as linguists and academics can work with the community,” he said. “When we see the kids learning the language it is very rewarding.”

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