Tag Archives: endangered languages

At the New York Public Library: From Ainu to Zaza

We all know that languages are dying at an alarming rate.

What can we do about it? People have been trying to save languages for decades, usually without success. But recently, there have been some hopeful signs.

Bringing back a language is a massive challenge where the odds are stacked against you.

The language revitalization movement, however, is growing up. Activists have identified the approaches that may work. They share solutions among themselves and make fewer mistakes.

Nina Porzucki and I explored these questions at a recording of The World in Words, in front of a live audience at the New York Public Library.

Patrick and Nina at the New York Public Library (Photo: Isis Madrid)

Patrick and Nina at the New York Public Library (Photo: Isis Madrid)

We heard from various guests, in person and on tape, about Ainu, Shinnecock, Mustang, Irish, Garifuna, Hawaiian and, yes, Zaza. Plus, there was a singalong and a dodgy joke or two.

Listen above or at iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook . There’s a longer version of this post here. And this is me on Twitter.

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What’s the point of learning Russian?

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

When my editor, Patrick, assigned me a story about how the Russian language is dying, I thought he was being funny.

I pointed out that, yoo hoo! — I speak Russian and so does my entire family. I invited, no, dared, him to step into a crowded elevator in New York City and start complaining in loud Russian about someone’s B.O.

And then I headed to Bright Minds Center in Manhattan for graduation day, where classes in Russian are offered for kids age 2 to 15… and business is booming.

“In the first year, we signed up 60 kids. Now we have around 300 families,” co-founder Anna Volkova tells me. In fact, the school has expanded so fast since 2008 that they are now looking to open a second branch. But when I ferried this news back to my editor, he directed my attention to a national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, which paints a different picture. Russian now places last among foreign languages taught in American elementary or secondary schools. At just 0.3 percent, it ranks behind Greek, Arabic and Native American languages.

That wasn’t the case before the Iron Curtain fell. But the US government’s interest in Russian studies was closely tied to their interest in keeping the Soviet Union in check.

As Russian language expert Kevin Hendzel explains, “When the Soviet Union first collapsed, the language money went away from Russian and into Ukrainian and Kazakh and the Baltic languages because there was no capability in the United States. And after 9/11, all the money got pulled into Arabic and Pashtu and Dari and Urdu and a lot of other languages. In a limited pool of dollars, you tend to move them around to where you feel a need.”

That need hasn’t been keenly felt here in the US for years. And the former Soviet satellite countries are dropping Russian as a second language faster than Vladimir Putin can say Pussy Riot. Without government funding, interest in learning Russian depends more on its pop-appeal, but even during the Sochi Olympics, the cultural ambassadors Russia touted were mostly… dead. Safe to say there are just aren’t a surplus of youngsters out there jonesing to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in the original.

But there is still one place where Americans are required to know Russian, and that’s Outer Space. Starting in 2011, NASA made learning Russian a requirement for all astronauts, the same year it began relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. But recent tensions over the crisis in Ukraine have had the Russians threatening to end their participation in the International Space Station program. That doesn’t mean American astronauts should put away their Russian grammar textbooks quite yet.

“The Russians take some delight in being the means by which the Americans are able to get to the space station, and there’s still a fair amount of decent science being done up there that can’t be done really anywhere else.” Kevin told me. “So I think what you’re going to see is the effort will continue.”

And according to Kevin, the chill that’s settled over US-Russian relations may paradoxically end up driving us back into Russia’s arms — linguistically speaking that is.

“Within the government, I think they’re looking at it and saying, “We may have run away from this a little bit too quickly. Let’s put a little bit of money here. Let’s put some more chips on the table. Let’s be aware of the advantages that knowing a language at a native level, or certainly at a technical level, give us.”

And yet, Russian will never again be as widely spoken as it was when the Soviet Union straddled the globe like a sumo wrestler, threatening to sit on countries that dared say Nyet to Russian. But just as I was starting to feel depressed that Russian would soon just be a lonely secret I shared with 144 million other native speakers, I met up with linguist John McWhorter, who reminded me just how unlikely the spread of Russian was to begin with.

“Russian is really, really hard. And I say that as somebody who loves Russian very much. Just all of the jangling stuff on the nouns, all the brick-a-brack with the verbs, just try to say something as simple as ‘I went to the store.’ The verbs of motion. Just try to count! It’s a magnificent nightmare.”

You’d think the languages easiest to speak and learn, would also be the most common. But it turns out tanks and bombers spread a language much more effectively than the promise of regular verbs.

“And so it just shows that there’s nothing about the way a language happens to be put together that allows it to spread and become a language of empire,” McWhorter informs me. “Any language can become a language of empire so long as certain conditions are met.”

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Of course, politics and war aren’t the only way a language can spread. Forty years ago, we may have had a lot more Americans speaking Russian as a second language, but the number of Russian immigrants in the US was infinitesimal. Not so today.

At Bright Minds Center, 90 percent of the kids studying Russian are from mixed parentage with only one Russian-speaking parent.

Many of the kids even end up being trilingual, like Dmitry Golden’s daughter, a student at Bright Minds, who speaks Spanish as well as Russian because her mother is a native of the Dominican Republic.

As the saying goes: languages are best learned on the pillow. Or to put it another way: To Russian, with love.


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Babies, apologies and “huh?” with Cartoon Queen Carol

Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Anishahamedsaifi via Wikimedia Commons

Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I went round the linguistic block in the pod this week. (See bottom of post for all stories and links.) Among the topics we discussed: two new studies concerning language acquisition.

There’s plenty we don’t know about how we start speaking. We are constantly trying to discover more, but much of the process remains a mystery. How do we start conversing, picking up the grammar as we go along? Two new studies cast light on the early stages of language acquisition.

A study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, considered infants’ recognition of a second language. It found that infants as young as 13 months could distinguish between languages. They could tell when adult speakers used different words for different things. The kids were shown videos of English and French nursery rhymes. Researchers concluded that the infants came to understand that certain items were described differently in English and French.

“Infants appreciate that words are not shared by speakers of different languages, suggesting that infants have a fairly nuanced understanding of the conventional nature of language,” said study co-author Annette Henderson.

“People often think that babies absorb language and you don’t have to teach them, and they do absorb it and they learn very passively, but they’re not just learning willy-nilly,” she said.

Another way infants learn is through adult baby talk. Yes, that often annoying way that adults speak to babies — slowly, elongating some vowels: “How are youuuuuuu?” The more an adult talks that way, making it clear to the infant that this is a one-on-one interaction, the quicker the infant picks up words.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut studied thousands of verbal exchanges between adults and infants in reaching their conclusion.

“Some parents produce baby talk naturally and they don’t realize they’re benefiting their children,” said the study’s co-author Nairán Ramírez-Esparza. “What this study is adding is that how you talk to children matters.”

These studies were a couple of the topics Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I discussed in the podcast. Here are the others:

  • Meaningless apologies. More especially among Brits and Japanese. And Brits again, as observed by an UK-based US Army officer.
  • Bosnia has three school systems and three languages of instruction. Tough luck if you live in the ‘wrong’ part of the country.
  • Is ‘huh?’ really used in all languages? It is in the 31 languages surveyed in this study.
  • Is the Endangered Languages Movement skewing linguistics research?

All the the fun is in the podcast, and Carol’s a blast. So give it a listen on the Soundcloud player at the top of this page.

  • The World in Words Podcast on iTunes
  • The World in Words Podcast via RSS
  • The World in Words on Facebook
  • Patrick Cox on Twitter
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    The Manchus ruled China into the 20th century, but their language is almost extinct

    Manchu language class at People's University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Manchu language class at People’s University in Beijing. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

    Here’s a guest post from the Big Show’s Matthew Bell who was recently in China.

    Wei Hubu was quick to make reference to my height. I met the 30 year-old language instructor after class at People’s University in Beijing.

    “We Manchus used to be tall just like you,” he pointed out as we walked to the university cafeteria. At 6’4″, I’m at least a foot taller than Wei.

    “But most Manchu men were warriors, and they all got wiped out,” he said with an ironic chuckle.

    In 2013, China’s ethnic Manchu minority is in little danger of being wiped out. It’s more than 10 million strong. But the Manchu language is another story. It’s on the verge of extinction.

    Well aware of this fact, Wei is among a small number of people trying to avert what they see as a looming disaster.

    The end of the Qing Dynasty

    The last emperors of China belonged to the Qing Dynasty, a fascinating era in Chinese history that begins in the 17th century and ends in 1911. Every Chinese school kid knows 1911 as a turning point, when thousands of years of imperial rule in China finally came to a close.

    Screen shot from "Kangxi Dynasty," a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

    Screen shot from “Kangxi Dynasty,” a Chinese television drama set during the Qing Dynasty.

    Thanks in part to popular television soap operas, people in China have something of an idea what Manchu rule looked like. Or at least how China’s Manchu rulers might have dressed. What is far from authentic in these period drama series though is the dialogue.

    Actors in the soaps speak Mandarin Chinese, the national language of the People’s Republic since the 1950s. But during the Qing era, government officials were actually foreigners. Officials in the Chinese court were Manchus from the northeast, mostly beyond the Great Wall, near the border with Korea. Manchuria is the English name of the region.

    The Manchus had their own language too. And naturally, Manchu became the language of all official business during the Qing Dynasty.

    Like Wei Hubu, most of the students in his classroom at People’s University are ethnic Manchus themselves, there to learn the language of their ancestors.

    After class, Wei was kind enough to teach me a few phrases in Manchu. To my non-expert ears, Manchu sounds a lot more like Korean than Chinese.

    How Manchu is written

    Manchu script is very different from Chinese characters. It’s more like Mongolian. It’s also phonetic, like English, with each letter of the Manchu alphabet corresponding to a specific sound.

    Wei admitted that he’s as much student as teacher. He comes from a Manchu family, but only started studying the language a couple of years ago. He said Manchu won’t help him professionally. He is mainly trying to get in touch with his Manchu roots, and – he hopes – to make a modest contribution to the effort to save Manchu from disappearing completely.

    “If Manchu dies out,” Wei told me, “so much will be lost. Language is the soul of a culture. People would never truly understand Manchu culture and history.”

    Under official Chinese government policy, the languages of ethnic minorities are protected. But attitudes among the Chinese public can be less than charitable. More than 90 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people belong to the same ethnic group, the Han. And many of them see little reason to preserve certain cultural relics of the past.

    Apathy toward Manchu

    During an evening walk at the summer palace of the former Qing emporers in Beijing, I ran into a 26 year-old lawyer named Chen. The park is a popular historic spot. With some pride, Chen took a look around at the ancient monuments and said that he is captivated by the legacy of the Qing Dynasty, but not the Manchu language.

    “I’m Han ethnicity, so I don’t know much about the Manchu language,” he said.

    I asked Chen what he thought about the effort to save the language from extinction.

    “My personal opinion is that we should let it be, because some languages will slowly fade away,” Chen replied matter-of-factly. “I don’t think we should do something to intentionally preserve them. What will die out, will finally fade away.”

    It’s hard to find much enthusiasm for the Manchu language among most of the Chinese public. That might have something to do with the fact that Manchu has been fading away for a long, long time.

    In the 18th century, China’s Manchu rulers lifted the ban on intermarriage, allowing Manchus and Han Chinese to get married and start families. At the same time, Manchu officials were told they had to start studying Mandarin.

    Traditional medicine

    Fast forward to the present day, and no one in China speaks Manchu as a first language, according to Cao Meng, a Manchu language professor at Shenyang Normal University north of Beijing. Cao said fewer than a hundred people can read classical Manchu fluently. But the professor disagreed with the suggestion that Manchu is already a dead language. Not yet, at least.

    “The Manchu ethnicity is one of China’s largest in terms of population,” Cao told me. “It would be a national shame if the language was allowed to die out completely.”

    Cao explained that there are troves of untranslated materials written in the Manchu language. These sources are full of information about family histories, government policies, and other subjects close to the hearts of many Chinese people, like traditional medicine.

    “This knowledge could be lost forever,” Cao said. So, the professor – who is Han Chinese – is working to promote the study of Manchu starting in grade school.

    For others though, it’s more personal.

    One Manchu language instructor told me she understands the language a lot better than her parents do. She is also from a Manchu family. So, to help her folks get in touch with their cultural roots as well, she makes them listen to pop music with Manchu lyrics.


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    China’s linguistic landscape is changing as rapidly as its cities and lifestyles

    The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don't speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

    The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don’t speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

    Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

    As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.

    While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.

    There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.

    But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.

    Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.

    Government policy lags social desire

    Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.

    “I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.

    China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.

    “The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”

    Menial jobs

    Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.

    On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.

    School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.

    Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.

    “I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”


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    A welcome addition

    If you like the kind of reporting I do in the podcast and in this blog, you’re going to love this: a new digital online magazine devoted to in-depth language reporting. It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, who’s made several pod appearances.

    I’m in the Kickstarter video, as is my multilingual soccer T-shirt:


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    When New Yorker Rose Monintja speaks her native tongue, the memories of her rural Indonesian upbringing flood back

    Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

    Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

    Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Bruce Wallace…

    Manhattan’s East Village has a storied literary past, but on a recent Sunday, there was a different sort of bookish chatter in the neighborhood.

    A group had gathered to celebrate the literary traditions of Indonesia–specifically the traditions of five of that country’s nearly 800 languages. It was the first in a series of events put together by a group called the Endangered Language Alliance to shine light on the literature of disappearing languages – ones that have a shrinking number of native speakers.

    Tontemboan is the most endangered of the five languages — today it’s spoken by somewhere around 100,000 people. Like most disappearing languages, it’s not being passed along to younger generations.

    Rose Monintja, a native speaker, read “The Story of Lumimuut and Toar,” which, like a lot of creation myths, is a strange one. It involves a crow and a perspiring stone, a couple handfuls of dirt magically turning into an island, and two main characters that are part Adam-and-Eve and part Oedipus.

    “Our parents, they speak Tontemboan, “Monintja says. “But in the school I didn’t learn Tontemboan. In the school: Indonesian language.”

    She says her Tontemboan-speaking parents actually encouraged her to learn Bahasa Indonesia—the country’s national language. Her parents thought it was key to their kids getting a better education than they had.

    She and her husband Alfrits both left the thousand-person village they grew up in, moving first to a provincial capital, then to Jakarta. In the mid-90s they moved to Queens, an immigrant-rich borough in New York City. They both still understand Tontemboan, but their speaking is a little rusty.

    The stories they’ve been asked to read by the Endangered Language Alliance are actually not known today among native speakers—they’ve been gathering dust in a study put together 100 years ago by a Dutch missionary.

    “Many of these missionaries had a real authentic interest in the religious beliefs and the spiritual life of the people they were trying to convert. And, ironically, now our only window into that world is through their work,” says Daniel Kaufman, a specialist in Indonesian languages and founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.

    The Dutch study collected tons of information about the Tontemboan language, but, since it’s written in Dutch, it’s been inaccessible to Tontemboan speakers. Kaufman thinks it’s high time that linguists start restoring this kind of knowledge to people who still speak these languages.

    “Many, many people feel that knowledge, and history, and culture has been taken from them by Western academics and never returned,” he says.

    It’s particularly fitting that the Monintjas are performing these stories, since the Dutch missionary originally recorded them in the same small village where Rose and her husband were born.

    Reading through the Tontemboan story, and getting ready to perform it on stage, brought back strong memories of that village for Rose.

    “When I’m reading this I just feel like so close,” she says. “Like I’m there–I’m here but I’m over there, I’m in my village. I just almost cry because I can…oh my gosh…my dad is pass away already three years ago. I just remember him all the time when I hear that. Because in my ear, he’s always calling me, ‘Oh, Rose, Kumano ko mayo oh.’ Tontemboan stuff, I love that.”

    Rose and her husband get together regularly to speak in Tontemboan with other expats in the area, trying to keep the language and memories alive. And they were pleased to discover that their daughter had managed to pick up some. Rose’s parents spent a lot of time with them when their daughter was first born.

    A few years later, her daughter noticed Rose’s leg bothering her. Out of nowhere, the daughter came up with the Tontemboan phrase for “your leg is in pain” that she remembered hearing her grandmother say. “I say ‘What!? Oh my gosh, she knows that!'” Rose remembers, smiling.

    Rose said she even bragged on Facebook about performing Tontemboan in New York City. And she got props from her daughter, now 12-years-old, after her performance. Rose thanked her daughter, although she didn’t say it in Tontemboan, she said it in Indonesian, which her daughter understands better.


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    A Push to Keep the Zapotec Language Alive in Los Angeles

    In Los Angeles recently, people from the small town of San Bartolome Zoogocho, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, honored their patron saint.  (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

    In Los Angeles recently, people from the small town of San Bartolome Zoogocho, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, honored their patron saint. (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

    Here’s a guest post from LA-based reporter Ruxandra Guidi

    It’s 6 o’clock on a Friday night. About a dozen people gather inside a small office space in Los Angeles; in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, where many immigrants live. Sitting around a circle, they recite words in Dizha’ Xhon, also known as the Zapotec language.

    Aaron Huey Sonnenschein, a linguistics professor at California State University, Los Angeles, is leading the group, focusing solely on the sound of Zapotec words. It’s called the “phonics” method of learning. Sonnenschein adds that it is a methodology that linguist Leanne Hinton, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, has innovated. Sonnenschein adds that it’s an approach that works especially well with indigenous languages like Zapotec, which counts on few native speakers. The idea is to avoid the “years it would take to create a full language program and create one as we go along.”

    Aside from their Friday night meet-ups, the group in Los Angeles is creating a digital archive on Facebook featuring Zapotec words. It also has photos illustrating their meaning and their translation into English.

    The web-based, interactive archive is meant for young, English-speaking Oaxacan Americans like 15-year-old Alison Morales.

    “My whole family speaks Zapotec,” says Morales. “My grandma would always say hi to me in Zapotec and I didn’t know what it meant. So I decided to learn a few words here and there.” His mom, Celerina Montes, couldn’t be happier or more proud.

    “I’m really proud to be Oaxacan,” Montes says. “Of course, I’m also proud to be Mexican, and to speak Spanish.” But, she adds, that with people who she knows speak Zapotec, she always bids them a good afternoon by saying “patir” rather than “buenos tardes.”

    In Los Angeles, Montes constantly runs into people from her Oaxacan village, San Bartolome Zoogocho. So, the class is also a place to see old friends, and to get the latest gossip from back home. But San Bartolome Zoogocho is also shrinking.

    There are only about 400 people left there these days. On the other hand, Los Angeles is home to about 1,500 Zoogochenses.

    “Most of us live here. We have a ghost town, basically, at home,” says Odilia Romero, director of the LA-based Binational Organization of Indigenous Communities. It’s hosting the Zapotec classes. “If the language was to be rescued, it would be here in LA. But if we don’t do anything about it, by 2050, it’ll be gone,” says Romero.

    On a warm Sunday afternoon, Romero and more than 50 other Zoogochenses stand outside a home in South LA, holding red gladiolus flowers. They wait for the brass band to start playing. Then, they march behind a framed 8-by-11 photo of an effigy of their patron saint, San Bartolome. The photo is taken inside a home and placed on an altar, surrounded by incense and more flowers. The display is similar to the type of ritual done back in the Mexican village, with the original effigy.

    With flowers in his hand, Ted Lazaro says this little procession is one way of keeping his village’s traditions alive. Speaking Zapotec is another.

    “To say that you’re indigenous is a dirty word for many people still. It implies that you have no education,” says Lazaro. “But these days, our kids go to school and learn about many cultures, including their own. So now it’s the kids that talk to their parents and grandparents here, and tell them, “Look, your culture is important.’”

    Lazaro is a computer programmer by day. Lately, he’s spent evenings and weekends practicing Zapotec with his children and making traditional masks. On August 24, dancers will wear those masks at a fiesta organized by people in Los Angeles with ties to San Bartolome Zoogocho. It is something they have done in LA for nearly 45 years.



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    Composer Kevin James Finds Music in Disappearing Languages

    The Del Sol String Quartet performing “Ainu Inuma” in San Francisco. (Photo: Irwin Lewis)

    The Del Sol String Quartet performing “Ainu Inuma” in San Francisco. (Photo: Irwin Lewis)

    Here’s a guest post from reporter and producer Bruce Wallace…

    Kevin James is a musician and composer in New York City. For the past few years, he’s been working on The Vanishing Languages Project. He starts with recordings of endangered languages—ones with very few or, in one case, no remaining native speakers. He uses these as inspiration for extended string and percussion pieces. He recently debuted his latest work in Brooklyn and San Francisco.

    James first started thinking about the power of endangered languages when he was in his teens. It was the ‘70s, and he was watching a PBS documentary about these Australian Aboriginal land rights trials. In the documentary, an aboriginal man prepares to testify. The man is the last native speaker of his language, and he insists on giving testimony in his language, without translation.

    “It was beautiful,” James says, remembering the documentary recently in his Upper Manhattan home. “At the end of his testimony it was clear that everyone in the courtroom was very moved. And the judges seemed to come to the conclusion that it was better to hear it given in his own language than it could have been translated. Mainly because of the obvious emotion and the sense that this was the last person who could speak this language and it was such a lovely language; such a really beautiful language. The sense that this was going to be lost along with his land. That his culture and his language would be lost as well. It came across as a gift to have heard this language spoken one more time.”

    Kevin James at his home studio in New York City. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

    James began working in earnest on the Vanishing Languages Project six years ago. He says he was motivated in part by how current the concern for disappearing languages felt. “I like for my music whenever possible to capture a moment—a historical moment. A time on earth, and this was timely. We expect to lose at least half the world’s languages before the end of the century,” James says.

    He started poring over the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and focused in on four languages: the Quileute language from the Pacific Northwest, Dalabon and Jawoyn, two Aboriginal languages from Northern Australia; and Ainu from Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. For the first three James tracked down the handful of remaining native speakers of the language and spent time recording them talking to each other or telling stories. There are no native Ainu speakers still living, so he relied on archival recordings of those.

    He then picked through the hundreds of hours of recordings looking for particularly musical passages, keeping an eye out for qualities like cadence, melody, and inflection.

    “The concept behind this project was to take those qualities—to take the inflections and use those as the basis of music,” James says. “Rather than most music is based on physics-how many divisions of a second can you make, and how do you count that time. And it’s regular, that time is regular you beat out a beat, you keep that beat, you can make it a little faster, a little slower. But when we speak, the inflection is much more fluid. And the same is true of the melodic aspects of a lot of language, in terms of how much register they cover.”

    James built an extensive series of ragas, or small musical phrases, based on precise transcriptions of the rhythm and melody of spoken phrases. These ragas are the building blocks of the four Vanishing Languages compositions.

    “In each of the pieces the musicians are asked at certain points to mimic actual words or actual sounds of the language,” he says. “But the mirroring of the language was the springboard—it was the jumping off place. The point of the piece was to extend that musically and to take those phrases and see how far they could go with them.”

    James doesn’t provide translations of the languages he uses in his compositions. “I really do prefer that the audience experience be as pure as possible,” he says. “For me my first experience was not understanding, and nobody understanding what was spoken, and that being a very pure and revealing experience. I find people when they don’t have a visual to back up audio, that they go searching, and that they assign their own meanings. And I think that’s a more meaningful experience than them listening and picturing somebody cooking. I think it’s more meaningful for them to find their own…their own… place for that, their own visual for that, their own set of contexts in terms of their own experience.”

    James is currently working on getting recordings of the project out into the world. And, sometime soon, he’s hoping to bring Vanishing Languages Project back to Australia and Japan—the ancestral homes of Dalabon, Jawoyn, and Ainu.



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    Getting Kids to Speak Africa’s Languages, One Doll at a Time

    Once every couple of months, Cartoon Queen Carol Hills and I pick five language stories to chat about. They’re all news stories of some sort, but none has made much of a splash. These are stories we chose this time:

    The Future of Yoruba

    Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is worried that young Nigerians aren’t speaking Yoruba. The language is the native tongue of between 20-30 million people—mainly Nigerians, but also some Beninese and Togolese.

    Girl with Rooti dolls. (Photo: Rooti Dolls)

    (Photo: Rooti Dolls)

    Many of Nigeria’s best-known cultural exports—Soyinka, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade—were brought up as Yoruba speakers. Now there are calls to switch the language of instruction in schools and colleges from English to Yoruba. The idea is to head off a catastrophic crash before it’s too late.

    A small part of the effort to keep Yoruba alive among young people is Rooti Dolls. It’s the brainchild of London-based Nigerian entrepreneur Chris Chidi Ngoforo. Big Show host Marco and I talked about Rooti Dolls and Yoruba in the broadcast:

    Rooti Dolls are like regular speaking dolls, except that they each speak four or five languages. There are twelve in the series, covering close to 50 languages. They all also speak English, which they use to teach a few words in their African languages. The idea is to expose these languages to children who may be living far from their ancestral homelands. Ngoforo himself is raising three young daughters in exactly that situation (the family’s ancestral language isn’t Yoruba, but another Nigerian language, Igbo).

    Also discussed in the podcast:



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