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How to Revive a Lost Language

By the year 2100, the human race will have lost about 50% of the languages alive today. Every fourteen days a language dies. There are some success stories though

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Aramaic is one language scholars are racing to save. Image: Charles Roffey

By the year 2100, the human race will have lost about half of the languages in use today. Every fourteen days a language dies. For native speakers of Navajo, Southwestern Ojibwa, Ohlone or Aragonese, losing their language means losing cultural heritage and history. And saving a dying language is really hard. But the people who provide life support for the struggling tongues can look to one success story: Yurok. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Last fall, Eureka High became the fifth and largest school in Northern California to launch a Yurok-language program, marking the latest victory in a Native American language revitalization program widely lauded as the most successful in the state.

At last count, there were more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.

That might seem like a small group, but in the 1990s, there were just six Yurok speakers left.

Keeping small languages vibrant has always been a big challenge, says National Geographic:

Throughout human history, the languages of powerful groups have spread while the languages of smaller cultures have become extinct. This occurs through official language policies or through the allure that the high prestige of speaking an imperial language can bring. These trends explain, for instance, why more language diversity exists in Bolivia than on the entire European continent, which has a long history of large states and imperial powers.

As big languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the dominant language. Depending on attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or they may forget it as it falls out of use. This has occurred throughout human history, but the rate of language disappearance has accelerated dramatically in recent years.

Many linguists are trying to preserve these languages as they totter along towards extinction. The Endangered Language Project is creating an online database of research and information about languages that are imperiled. There are currently 141 languages that qualify as extinct or “sleeping.” Aramaic isn’t on that list, but it’s close. Linguists are working furiously to preserve the language that Jesus spoke, Smithsonian reports:

Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, was the common tongue of the entire Middle East when the Middle East was the crossroads of the world. People used it for commerce and government across territory stretching from Egypt and the Holy Land to India and China. Parts of the Bible and the Jewish Talmud were written in it; the original “writing on the wall,” presaging the fall of the Babylonians, was composed in it. As Jesus died on the cross, he cried in Aramaic, “Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

But Aramaic is down now to its last generation or two of speakers, most of them scattered over the past century from homelands where their language once flourished. In their new lands, few children and even fewer grandchildren learn it. (My father, a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq, is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic; I grew up in Los Angeles and know just a few words.) This generational rupture marks a language’s last days. For field linguists like Khan, recording native speakers—“informants,” in the lingo—is both an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time.

The key to success for Yurok is teaching children the language that perhaps their parents forgot, says the LATimes:

The tribe has pushed for high school classes to be scheduled in the early morning — to get students there and keep them there. It seems to be working.

Alex Gensaw lives next door to tribal elder Archie Thompson and craved a deeper connection to his culture. He came into McQuillen’s class three years ago knowing only 10 words of Yurok: It wasn’t spoken in his home. But the 16-year-old (a second cousin to Yurok teacher James Gensaw) now is teaching his mom. And his feelings about the high school have shifted. “It’s like they care more,” he said.

In the Northwest Territories of Canada, a kindgerarten class might be the last chance for the Tlicho Yait language, Smithsonian reported last year:

In a bid to save their language, and with it, their culture, the Tlicho government has implemented an immersion kindergarten program taught entirely in their native language, Tlicho Yati, the first such class in neatly 20 years, reports the CBC. With only a few thousand native speakers spread amongst four main communities in the Northwest Territories, Canada, the language of the Tlicho people is in a tenuous position. A majority of Tlicho children do not speak the language, but similar immersion programs elsewhere have shown that kids are open to learning new languages.

And while many older native speakers are wary of academics and their recording devices, they’re also wary of losing their words.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How to Save a Dying Language
Reviving the Ohlone Language
Kindergarten Classes Could Save Fading Language

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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