Languages face threat of extinction

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Deep in interior Alaska, there are only three households where Kuskokwim is still spoken. Just two people in their 70s keep the Klamath language alive in Oregon. In northern Australia, about 10 native speakers keep Jingulu alive.
These are among the world’s most endangered languages, tongues that have fallen victim to social and economic pressures that demand people learn more common languages such as English.
Linguists predict half of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken today will be extinct within the next century, and say at least 100 are down to one native speaker.
At Yale University, a modest effort is being made to counter the trend with a fund that helps researchers study and resurrect dying languages, often by compiling dictionaries.
The Endangered Language Fund, set up four years ago by linguist Douglas H. Whalen, is financing its first projects this year. Ten projects, including efforts to preserve Kuskokwim, Klamath and Jingulu, will each get $1,000.
“A lot of communities have been forced in various ways to start abandoning their language. I think people often don’t realize that there’s cultural value in their language until it’s too late,” Whalen said.
In some cases, languages can be threatened by governmental force, Whalen said.
“In the United States, for example, the native American languages are the ones that were here first and for centuries there were deliberate attempts to get those languages to stop being used,” he said.
More often, languages die because of the influence of more common languages such as Chinese, English or Swahili, a process aided by modern communications technology and easy transportation.
Even with relatively few speakers, a language may survive if it is spoken as the main form of communication within an isolated community.
Conversely, however, a language with thousands of speakers may be endangered if all of its speakers are more than 50 years old and it isn’t used by the younger generation.
That is what has happened to the Tohono O’odham language, an Indian tongue spoken by roughly 12,000 people in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.
While the eldest generation still speaks Tohono O’odham, many of their children refused to teach it to the next generation, deferring to English because they faced discrimination when they spoke their native language in government schools, said Ofelia Zepeda, a grant recipient.
“Across the country, you have a generation of native speakers who were not allowed to speak their languages or who were punished for speaking them,” said Zepeda, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona.
Zepeda will use the grant money to help produce a comprehensive dictionary of Tohono O’odham.
The value of a community’s language can only be determined by the people themselves, said Kenneth Hale, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“If members of the community recognize or have come to see the beauty and strength and complexity and value of their linguistic heritage, then they have a perfect right and, in fact, a very strong moral right to maintain it,” Hale said.
“When you lose a language, it’s like dropping a bomb on a museum.”