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China Says Linguistic Diversity “Not Important”

Over 1.3 billion people live in China, speaking a variety of different languages and dialects. To help unify such a diverse country, the government has long promoted the use of China’s official language, Mandarin. As a consequence, though, China’s linguistic diversity is fading. 88 Chinese languages are endangered, according to the Globe and Mail, and the Chinese government doesn’t seem particularly interested in preserving them.

The upcoming census could have been used to help quantify the problem, simply by asking respondents to select the languages they speak.  However, questions about language were not included in the form.

Chen Xizhou, a minority language expert from the Yunnan Institute for Nationalities, told the Globe and Mail:

“They didn’t ask about something that we really need to know, but they did ask how many houses people have and how many rooms. I don’t know why that is.”

It appears Chen Xizhou can stop wondering. Fang Nailin, the Vice Director of the census, answered that question for the Globe and Mail: the government simply decided that gathering the information was “not important.” Read more

8 Critically Endangered Languages of South America

When you think of South American languages, you probably think of Spanish and Portuguese. But South America is actually one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with over 448 languages from 37 different language families.

Unfortunately, however, many of those languages may soon fall silent. UNESCO classifies 108 South American languages as “critically endangered,” the last step before extinction. Some only have one living speaker. Others have almost no documentation- once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Here’s the scoop on 8 of these critically endangered languages of South America.

Tehuelche (Argentina)

Number of speakers: 4

Tehuelche is the original language of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia. When the Spanish began to explore Argentina, they encountered giant footprints in the mud and believed they were exploring a land of giants.

Of course, the footprints weren’t those of giant Patagones.  There were left by the moccasin-clad Tehuelche people, going about their business and speaking the Tehuelche language. Today, only 4 Tehuelche speakers remain. The language began to decline in the late 1500s, when many of the Tehuelche tribes began speaking Mapudungun, the language of their Mapuche neighbours, instead. The Spanish conquest sealed the deal, as even the tribes who continued to speak Tehuelche began to speak Spanish.

Pacahuara (Bolivia)

Number of speakers: Somewhere between 4 and 96

Once, the Pacahuara people roamed the Amazon. But the rubber industry decimated them. Now, only a small handful remain, in 2 groups. One group was relocated by Christian missionaries in the 1970s. Only a few elderly members of this group still speak the Pacahuara language. They are often referred to as the “last Pacahuaras.” You can hear their language in this BBC broadcast from 2013.

There is also a group of “uncontacted” Pacahuaras that has refused contact with the rest of the world. Experts believe they number about 50 people in total.

Arikapú (Brazil)

Number of speakers (2)

Until the 20th century, the Arikapú people lived in the Brazilian rainforest, uncontacted by Western civilization. They hunted, fished, gathered and grew some crops. They also bred various types of edible insects, using the larvae as food.

But Western diseases decimated the Arikapú, and many of the survivors were exploited by the rubber industry and relocated to reservations by the government. Today, only 2 Arikapú speakers remain. The rest of the ethnic Arikapú now speak Tuparí and Portuguese.

Guarasu (Brazil and Bolivia)

Number of speakers: (4)

Attempts to collect data on this language in 2015 failed when linguists were unable to get on good terms with the Guarasu chief. The chief, Sara Durán, thought they were working with political enemies and told the linguists, “You don’t know me, we are wild and when I get angry, I take out my arrow… I have many skulls in my yard.”

Guató (Brazil)

Number of speakers: (4)

The Guató people used to be widespread in the southwest region of Mato Grosso, Brazil. They were known as “canoe people” and tended to live along lakes. But settlers in their territory brought smallpox and other diseases, and cattle ranches encroached on their traditional lands. Now only 4 Guató speakers remain.

Kanoê (Brazil)

Number of speakers (5) 

There are two groups of Kanoê Indians living in Brazil- one group, which is integrated into mainstream Brazilian society, and one isolated group that was uncontacted until recently. Only 3 of the first group speak their native language.

Of the second group, only a single family remains. This group sought refuge in the forest, pursued by loggers and ranchers who wanted free use of the land. The ranchers attacked them with bulldozers, and took down their houses and gardens, all the while denying that there were any indigenous people in the forest to begin with.

One day, the men of the Kanoê tribe left on an expedition. According to Povos Indigenas no Brazil,  they hoped to find neighbouring indigenous tribes and negotiate marriages for their daughters. They never came back.  When the women realized that all of their husbands and older sons had died, they decided to commit mass suicide. One woman, Tutuá, changed her mind at the last minute, and saved herself, her son, her daughter, her sister and her niece.

The man singing in the video above is her son, Pura.

 

Oro Win (Brazil)

Number of speakers: 6

The Oro Win live in Rondônia, Brazil. They were enslaved by rubber tappers in the 1960s, then forced off their lands in the 1980s. In 1991, they were finally given their land back and were able to return. But by that time, their language had almost completely disappeared. This language has a bit more hope than most of the others on this list, as the Oro Win have begun to teach it in schools.

Yaghan (Chile)

Number of speakers: (1)

The Yaghan people once lived in Tierra del Fuego, where they stunned European explorers by walking around mostly naked despite the frigid temperatures, gathering around the fires that gave Tierra del Fuego its name. But European diseases took their toll, and European settlers took their land. Now, 90-year-old Cristina Calderon is the last speaker.

That said, she’s been working with linguists for years to record and preserve the language. And now that the atmosphere toward native languages has become more welcoming, Yaghan is being taught in local kindergartens.

If nothing else, Yagan is likely to live on as a piece of internet trivia. The word “mamihlapinatapai,” usually translated as “To look at each other, hoping that either will offer to do something, which both parties much desire done but are unwilling to do,” has made its way into various online articles of untranslatable words.

It may be too late for many of the languages on this list, but many other minority languages still have a shot at survival. At K International, we’re all in favour of language preservation, and one way to do that is to make it easier for people to use their native languages in daily life. If you’re looking for a quote on a translation project, check out the services we offer and feel free to contact us. We’d love to hear from you!

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Teenagers Save Languages

Kids these days, right? No respect for their elders, no respect for tradition…

If you’ve caught yourself thinking something like this, here’s a nugget of information that might surprise you: Teenagers in several different parts of the world are resurrecting endangered languages, using them for text messaging as well as online communication.

For example, according to Mobiledia.com, teens in southern Chile have been posting videos on YouTube of themselves rapping in a mixture of Spanish and Huilliche, an indigenous language with only about 2,000 speakers according to Wikipedia. Meanwhile, teens in parts of the Philippines text in  Kapampangan, a regional language. In parts of Mexico, young people similarly use the endangered language of Huave, with only 18,000 speakers, as a code for text messages. Read more

Which City Speaks the Most Languages?

Which city speaks the most languages? It’s not London, nor any of the metropolises of Europe.  It’s actually New York City. This city of immigrants is also the most linguistically diverse city in the world. Want to learn more? Here are 7 interesting facts about New York City and its languages.

There are over 800  languages spoken in New York City.

For reference, the most linguistically diverse country in the world is Papua New Guinea, with 820 languages. New York crams almost that many into a single city. Nowhere else comes close. Even London “only” has around 300 different languages.

Queens is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the entire world.queens_montage_2012_1-1

“The capital of linguistic diversity, not just for the five boroughs, but for the human species, is Queens,” according to Rebecca Solnit and Joshua-Jelly Schapiro’s  Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.  Residents of Queens speak approximately 138 languages, according to 2000 census data.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Queens also holds the Guinness World Record for the most diverse place on the planet. Read more

The Cornish Language: In Danger or Flourishing?

According to a new study, the Cornish language is in trouble. Big trouble. Researchers at University College have listed it as one of 33 languages “at risk of dying out,” along with Jersey French, Guernsey French, Manx and others.

However, in the Western Morning News, Cornwall councillor and Cornish Bard Bert Biscoe disputed that assessment. According to Biscoe:

“Knowledge and awareness of the language is growing really rapidly. There are several hundred fluent speakers and they are dedicated to teaching the language and passing it on. The numbers of people developing fluency in Cornish is increasing almost daily.”

So which is it? Is Cornish flourishing, or about to kick the bucket? Perhaps a little of both. The language began to decline after the 13th century. The number of Cornish speakers dropped rapidly after the failed Prayer Book Rebellion of the 15th century.  By the 18th or 19th century, it was considered extinct.

However, efforts to revive the language have been in progress since the late 19th century, and great strides have been made. It was officially recognized as a minority language by the UK government in 2002, and UNESCO changed its status from “extinct” to “critically endangered” in 2010. Bert Biscoe is correct that the number of Cornish speakers has been growing, and there were 2,000 fluent adults as of 2008.

Even University College professor Christopher Moseley believes that with enough effort, the language can be saved. What really matters is whether or not the language gets passed on to the next generation. So far, a small number of people have been brought up as native bilinguals of both English and Cornish. Will they do the same with their own children? Will children who study Cornish in school today teach it to their future children? The future of the language depends on it.

Meanwhile, travel planning company  GoEuro is promoting tourism to these areas as a way to save the languages on the list, according to Mashable. Do you think that’s a good language preservation strategy? We’d love to hear your take in the comments!

Photo credits: Attribution Some rights reserved by madnzany

The Yurok Language is Supposed to Be Dead

The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many  Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions.  Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.

The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In  fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.

However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.

According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”

In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal.  Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”

Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Michael Fraley

Endangered Languages: A Consequence of Prosperity?

Are languages dying as a result of economic growth? That’s the conclusion of a new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge.  But does it have to be that way? Dr. Tatsuya Amano, who led the study, has a background in animal extinction. Given that one in four languages around the world are threatened with extinction, the researchers decided to analyze where the languages most under threat were located and what those regions had in common. They found that the most developed regions of the world, like the US, Europe and Australia, had the highest rate of extinctions. As Dr. Amano explained to the BBC:

“World languages are now rapidly being lost. This is a very serious situation. We wanted to know how the extinction is distributed globally and what are the main drivers of this…As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically.”

Is language death a necessary consequence of development, though? Should we just let threatened languages die off in the name of spreading global prosperity? Some people certainly do see it that way. Tim Worstall of Forbes says that “ we shouldn’t worry too much about languages disappearing: because that is a signal that economic development is happening, people are becoming less poor.”  He advocates letting them die, but preserving recordings and dictionaries and other documentation for scholars to study. 

That argument ignores a few very important points, though. First, as a rule,  when a language dies people tend to feel like they’ve lost something of value, an important part of their cultural identity. Consider how many different groups, from Native Americans to minority language speakers in Europe, go through considerable amounts of  trouble and expense  to try to preserve or resurrect their languages.  In theory, at least, it should be easier to keep them from declining in the first place.

Besides, we now know that it’s not really an either/or choice between learning a dominant language like English and learning the native language of a given community. As long as children are exposed to both languages at an early age they are quite capable of learning both, and switching between them as required for business.

Also, as Gregory Anderson, the president of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages pointed out on al-Jazeera, from a historical perspective most cases of language extinction aren’t voluntary. There is almost always some type of force involved:

“There is a whole complex of historical and social factors, including discrimination … and disenfranchisement behind communities who abandon their language,” Anderson said. “It’s in many cases a response communities have to being mistreated and having their very identity devalued.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

How Climate Change Threatens Endangered Languages and Cultures 

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.” ~Galadriel

The world is changing. First of all, it’s growing hotter. Ice is melting, seas are rising. And it’s not only animals and plants that are in danger. Human lives and homes are also at stake. Cultures and languages that stretch back thousands of years may soon vanish forever, along with the lands and ecosystems that once sustained them.

How is climate change accelerating language loss? Which endangered languages and cultures are most at risk? And what, if anything, can be done?

Read more

Preserving Languages

Every two weeks, another language disappears from the world forever. According to National Geographic, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the year 2100. According to Laura Welcher, a linguist with the Long Now Foundation, some experts believe the situation is even more dire, and that 90% of all languages currently spoken will be extinct by the end of the century.

Via the foundation’s Rosetta Project, Welcher is trying to use technology to preserve as many of these languages as possible.  People sometimes question whether dying languages are even worth the effort of trying to save. In an interview with Fast Company, Welcher gave an eloquent explanation:

“If languages are our how-to guides for living on planet earth, and we stand to lose up to 90% of them, then that seems like we are looking at handing our descendants an encyclopedia of human life on Earth with all of the pages ripped out, except sections X, Y, and Z.”

So, how do we preserve sections A through W? Traditionally, linguists have worked one-on-one with speakers of endangered languages, making recordings, encoding rules for grammar and compiling dictionaries. Through the use of technology like cell phones and webcams, Welker envisions a future in which people can document the languages they speak on their own, quickly building storehouses of knowledge for linguists to sift through and organize. She told Fast Company: Read more

Why Are There So Many Languages?

Why Are There So Many Languages? 

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. But why? Why are there so many languages?

It’s an ancient question, almost as old as humanity itself.  Explanations for why people speak so many languages are common in myths from cultures around the world. The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one well-known example, but there are many others.

The truth is, we don’t have an easy answer for why people speak so many languages. That’s probably because there isn’t one.  Instead, linguistic diversity is a response to a variety of different elements that we’re only beginning to understand.  We may not have an answer, but here are 6 factors that encourage new languages to form.

Language May Have Developed In More Than One Place

Did humans ever speak just one language? We don’t know. There are two schools of thought:

  • Monogenesis, which holds that all languages evolved from a single ancestral language as ancient humans migrated out of Africa.
  • Polygenesis, which holds that multiple ancestral languages developed independently, as did agriculture and the domestication of animals.

So there may have been quite a bit of language diversity right from the start. But even if there was a single common human language to start out, humans would still speak thousands of different languages. That’s because . . .

People Move, and Languages Change

The main reason why there are so many languages has to do with distance and time. Groups of people are always on the move, seeking new opportunities. And languages change over time, too. Even English. Do remember trying to read Chaucer for the first time?  English has changed so much over the centuries that it’s difficult for modern English speakers to “get” Chaucer without footnotes.

What happens when you combine these two factors? Groups of people who speak a common language get divided by distance, and over time their dialects evolve in different directions. After enough time passes, they end up speaking two separate, but related languages. Read more