Falling silent: cultures fight for dying languages

by Tom Ford

As of last year, only 28 speakers of the once-flourishing Dakota language lived in Minnesota. And the plight of the Dakota language is not unique.

There are currently 5,000 to 6,000 languages spoken worldwide, but the Linguistics Society of America estimates that number may dwindle to the hundreds by the end of this century.

Leanne Hinton, a University of California-Berkley linguist who has studied language death for several decades, discussed efforts to preserve endangered languages Friday with University students and faculty.

“For a lot of small indigenous groups, their languages could disappear altogether,” Hinton said.

“I guess I kind of agree with the dire predictions,” she said.

In the United States, she said, language death particularly affects American Indian communities.

Through U.S. policies of land expansion and assimilation, she said, American Indian tribes were decimated and forced to abandon their culture, leaving few speakers of native languages.

Hinton said surviving speakers have little incentive to pass their languages along. Consequently, children don’t learn indigenous languages, and the languages die with the last speakers.

Hinton said only 20 of the 175 languages now spoken in the U.S. are learned by children in their homes.

Mahmoud Sadrai, a University linguistics professor, said losing a language reduces societal diversity.

“A language is not just a different vocabulary,” Sadrai said. “It’s a different vision of life.”

For example, he said, in the Dakota language, a person’s gender determines what words they use in some social situations, such as when they greet someone.

Hinton said anthropologists and linguists have long recognized the threat to native languages and have spent more than a hundred years documenting them.

But she said often languages were documented for historical purposes rather than with the intent of increasing communication.

Recently, native communities have sought to increase the number speaking their languages, and Hinton said linguists’ efforts have shifted accordingly.

She said linguists are adopting user-friendly documentation goals, such as writing dictionaries and recording conversational styles.

Also, Hinton said, efforts have increased to teach children endangered languages by pairing them with speakers in immersion schools and apprentice programs.

Nancy Stenson, a University linguistics professor, said awareness of the language problem is on the rise.

For example, Stenson said, there would be three classes at the University addressing language death this fall. Previously, she said, none were offered.

“Clearly we are dealing with a growth industry,” Stenson said.

She said the University could develop programs that provide linguistics training to people who speak indigenous languages. Those people could then go to native communities to teach and spread the language, she said.

But in light of University budget shortfalls and the specialized nature of such courses, Stenson said, funding prospects would be dim.

Sadrai said the United States is a monolingual society, and opposition to learning a second language is strong.

“If you don’t speak my language, and if you don’t talk like me, and if you don’t look like me, and if I’m good then, by golly, you can’t be good,” Sadrai said.

He said this barrier must be addressed before preservation efforts can succeed.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]