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Language and identity: the stories behind the world's endangered languages

November 19, 2020
<p>Alexa Oldman&#x27;s grandfathers pose for a picture on Nov. 13, 2020. Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Alexa Oldman.</p>

Alexa Oldman's grandfathers pose for a picture on Nov. 13, 2020. Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Alexa Oldman.

As Europeans began to colonize North America, Native Americans were placed in reservation boarding schools, where students were taught English and subjected to forced cultural assimilation.

This forced assimilation took a toll on linguistic diversity on the continent and as a result, North American indigenous languages have been on the decline since 1790.

For human biology sophomore Alexa Oldman, language revitalization is critical to keeping indigenous North American languages and identity alive.

"It's important for not only me but all other Native Americans to revitalize the language, because that is a part of who we are," Oldman said. "Our ancestors fought to keep the traditions alive and try to speak the language, even though they were reprimanded for it." 

Since the age of two, Oldman has participated in cultural events and learned traditional Native American dances. 

She said she believes language preservation efforts are crucial given the centuries of struggle her ancestors endured in order to keep their culture and language alive under colonization.

Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Her grandmother was among those who were placed in English boarding schools, resulting in language loss.

"My grandma had attended a boarding school, and her mom and dad were both fluent speakers in Anishinaabemowin," Oldman said. "Due to having to go to the boarding schools, my grandma then lost how to speak their own language." 

Despite her grandmother losing her family's native tongue, Oldman said her family has managed to pass Native American customs down the line. 

"I had attended ceremonies — Native ceremonies — when I was younger as well, and up until now," Oldman said. "Even my mom herself grew up the same way too. So, that's why she taught me my cultural ways. ... There's Seven Grandfather Teachings that we learned about when we were younger, and that we learn to live by and follow throughout our life. And then we learn about the four different directions. And we practice Sun Dance, which comes from my Northern Arapaho tribe out in Wyoming, which is only specific to them." 

These teachings continued to influence and shape Oldman as a young adult. 

"The Seven Grandfather Teachings, and a few that would be respect, truth, and honesty," Oldman said. "And because we live by that, then it teaches you to respect people, respect your peers. Be truthful and be honest in certain situations."

Anishinaabemowin's status, according to the Endangered Language Project, or ELP is threatened, with about 1,500 native speakers left.

So, how important is revitalization? 

Every 14 days, a language becomes extinct. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) predicts that by the year 2100, half of the world's languages will no longer exist. Today, there are approximately 6,500-7,000 known languages. Of those living languages, around 43%, or about 2795-3010 languages, are listed as endangered. 

Linguistics and Swahili professor Deogratias Ngonyani said there's much more at stake than just language loss. Just like biodiversity, linguistic diversity makes the way we live more sustainable and supports the ways we connect to other humans.

"We want to think of the world as very much like some biological environment," Ngonyani said. "A garden is supposed to have colors. You just don't get a garden that's just white or just red. A garden is going to be beautiful when you have different colors and that's how we like it. ... If we take language to be very much like how we sustain our lives as human beings, how we sustain our living and our world outlooks then having just one language. As things are evolving, we are increasingly becoming users of single languages. We become very much people or organisms that are feeding only on one kind of food. ... And so language is one of the things that we have in our humanity — in our shared humanity."

The Uyghur people, an ethnic minority that lives primarily in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China, speak the language, Uyghur. China incorporated Xinjiang in 1949, but the Xinjiang Conflict has been ongoing since the early 1930s.

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One source speaks Uyghur as a first language. The source said that while they spent most of their life living in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Uyghur culture and language only began in the last decade. 

Uyghur language and history teachers were largely detained after the schools were shuttered, and Uyghur students were moved to Mandarin-speaking schools, ultimately leading to Mandarin becoming the dominant language in Xinjiang. 

"They don't allow us to take our own history class, to take our own language class," the source said. "So, they don't allow us to say our own language in China, so this is why my first language is endangered." 

The source said after the internment camps started opening in Xinjiang, their life changed drastically. Up until that point, they had been allowed the same freedoms as the Chinese living in the region. Now, Uyghur people must go through a security checkpoint before entering public spaces like malls.

On top of an added security presence, Uyghur people in large groups are only allowed to occupy public spaces for a set amount of time. 

"You can't speak Uyghur at any official places like school and departments and any other places like that," the source said in a text. "If you have a party of more than 5 Uyghur people in the restaurant, then you have the limitations of 2 hours. More than that, the officers will come in and check everyone's ID."

There are about 10 million native Uyghur speakers. The vitality status is considered threatened, with the Eastern dialect being critically endangered, due to the lack of Uyghur courses in Xinjiang or East Turkestan schools. 

With so few members of younger generations of Uyghurs being taught and allowed to openly use the language, it's poised to die out. 

Ngonyani said this is one of the most common factors that lead to languages becoming increasingly more vulnerable. 

"There is always a large number of languages that have very few speakers," Ngonyani said. "Now the number itself may not be a bad thing. The bad thing happens when you find that the young ones are not learning the languages of their parents. And so increasingly, you're finding that children are learning languages that appear to be more dominant, more mainstream." 

Aside from targeted erasure, other languages are being phased out unintentionally. In an effort to keep up with our ever-changing, highly connected global society, certain languages have emerged as "universal" tongues. 

Today, English is the most widely known language, with over two billion speakers in the world. British imperialism began under Elizabeth I in the 16th century. At its height in the early 1920s, the empire's flag flew over some 24% of the world's land. 

"In the process of globalization, everyone wants to think of more of a language that can reach more people than before," Ngonyani said. "Therefore, the more you find the dominant languages like English. So, modern technology has made English even more accessible to many, many people in the world."

Political science/pre-law freshman Michael Cerbin's maternal family descends from the Quitos tribe of Quechua, a family of cultural languages indigenous to the Andes region of South America. Cerbin said his family maintains their ancestral ties to the tribe.

"They can trace their roots all the way back to the Quitos tribe which was slowly being annexed into the Incan empire when the Spanish came," Cerbin said in a text. "A few of the people in my mom's family still have ties to the tribes today. She has an uncle who has his own band and he got really into his tribal roots and now plays for the chief of a local tribe."

Cerbin and his family continue following Quechua traditions, like celebrating All Saints Day with cultural foods, like los wawas de pan — loaves of bread baked in the shape of babies and decorated with frosting — and colada morada — a drink made with spices and fruits, most of which are only found in the Andes region.


Quechua remains the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, with around eight million speakers throughout the Andes, according to the Penn Language Center

However, it's on the UNESCO list of endangered languages because it's become overshadowed by Spanish, which is the language of commerce in much of South America. It's also vulnerable because it's generally used as a spoken language, rather than for documentation purposes. 

Ngonyani said the most important step to be taken in the hopes of revitalizing these languages and cultures is providing institutional support. Without proper funding for resources like language classes and awareness efforts, these languages will die out with the last generation of native speakers. 

Activism is good, but without the backing of governments, the speakers of these languages will come up short. 

"It's very easy for people to dismiss the indigenous languages and say 'We don't need them; we already have English or French,'" Ngonyani said. "... The successes for different efforts for documentation and just archiving language materials have different levels of success in different places." 

As the world becomes increasingly connected and the need for a dominant language continues to prevail, it's important to be mindful of the impact globalization has on linguistic diversity and cultural identity. 

For languages with endangered or vulnerable status, time is running out. 

For the 573 known extinct languages, there's no more time. 


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