From Survival To Revival: A Q&A With The Endangered Language Alliance

The global movement to resuscitate dying languages has been underway since the ’90s, but in New York City, ELA takes an unusually urban approach to field work.
endangered language alliance

What would you do if you knew the truth about the great linguistic mass extinction we’re currently living through? Call it the result of genocide, policy, persecution or economic consequence. At the moment, however, there are hundreds of languages in the world that survive through just a handful of speakers, and the Endangered Language Alliance says that many of the estimated 7,000 languages in the world are due to disappear completely by the end of the century.

ELA is one of the organizations that has cropped up over the last couple of decades to preserve — and ultimately revitalize — the imperiled linguistic diversity of our world. What distinguishes this independent nonprofit is its focus on the linguistic communities surrounding its New York City headquarters, a city that is home to an estimated 800 languages, as well as its secondary Toronto outpost. A great deal of linguistic fieldwork takes place in remote villages, despite the fact that speakers of endangered languages are increasingly migrating to urban centers. In some cases, cities like New York even become strongholds for languages that have since gone extinct in their mother countries.

Through the documentation of high-quality digital recordings of stories, narratives and dialogs, as well as public outreach and cultural events, ELA has been working to do more than just preserve endangered languages. The ultimate goal of revitalization is to create continuity with new generations of language speakers, to help communities run their own language classes and create educational programs for the speakers of the future.

ELA partnered with Garifuna artist James Lovell to produce the Garifuna Nursery Rhymes Project, which teaches song and language to children across the Garifuna diaspora.

The motivations are manifold. Languages contain multitudes of human knowledge: ELA cites Ken Hale, an MIT professor and language activist, who said that losing a language “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.”

The organization believes firmly in the direct link between linguistic self-determination and economic equality, social justice and land rights; the ability of communities to maintain their own languages is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Babbel spoke to ELA’s Assistant Director, Ross Perlin, for more context on the organization and its experiences since its founding in 2010. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

BABBEL: On your website, you mention that “languages and cultures have always come into being and disappeared, but today’s situation is without parallel: a massive silencing of linguistic diversity on every continent, related to the ongoing ‘sixth extinction’ of biological species.” Can you tell me a little more about that?

PERLIN: The mass extinction of botanical and biological species over the last several decades is pretty well-known and is connected to climate change and a whole host of human activities.

But what’s less well-known is that there’s a parallel extinction of human languages, and they are clearly and closely connected, starting from the fact that the areas with the highest botanical and biological diversity are also the areas with the world’s greatest cultural and linguistic diversity. These are places like the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, and the Himalayas. But they’re also places that have been — up until very recently — outside this massive system of colonial empires and nation states and markets.

In many cases, languages are disappearing because the people who speak them are experiencing the loss of traditional lifeways, which is displacing them and completely changing the context in which these cultures have existed.

BABBEL: What was the turning point in this gradual decline that led to the creation of various language preservation initiatives?

PERLIN: Individual groups have been working to preserve and revitalize their languages and cultures now for a long time. A lot of these movements picked up speed in the 1960s, when you saw some of the really signal efforts, like the Maori in New Zealand, Hawaiian, Welsh, Catalan and Basque.

In the linguistic community, people usually trace it to the early 1990s, when there was a series of discussions following a famous talk by a linguist named Michael Krauss that put together information on the global linguistic situation and made clear that as many as half of the world’s languages could be considered endangered and might not survive the next century. That began to wake up the linguistics community, which in far too many cases had been engaged in other kinds of research, while the very thing that linguists study was threatened.

BABBEL: How does ELA fit into this narrative? What is its origin story, so to speak?

PERLIN: ELA is unique because we work in New York City: in an urban area that is in some ways the greatest linguistic hotspot of all. More than 10 percent of world’s approximately 7,000 languages are spoken in New York. Obviously, it’s a complex multilingual environment, but the idea behind ELA was to establish a field station or hub in the city where increasing numbers of speakers of endangered languages are coming.

New York is a haven for languages, but one where it’s difficult for them to survive. We do a whole variety of things, like field work, which most people associate with remote villages or mountains, but you can do coming off the 7 train. At the same time, we do classes and projects around children’s books and films — projects that connect immigrants and diaspora communities to their homeland — so we’re still, as far as we know, the only organization devoted to endangered languages that’s in an urban area and is able to take full advantage of being at the crossroads of the world.

In Tajikistan, Davlatmo Bairambekova introduces herself in Wakhi, which stems from the Eastern Iranian language family.

BABBEL: You make a really interesting point about the intimate connection between linguistic diversity and human rights. It certainly seems to be the case that language has historically been one of the first targets for colonizers and oppressors. Why do you think that’s the case?

PERLIN: Different empires and nation-states have operated differently, but minority languages are often targeted — once this marker of identity and solidarity has been eliminated, a group can be much easier to control.

Some people say or ask us, “Well, if we all spoke the same language, wouldn’t there be peace all over the world?” And as we all know, that’s certainly no guarantee of peace. Just think of all the civil wars where both sides spoke the same language.

What is certainly the case is that as nation states have become the main global form of governance over the last century, they have sought increasingly and intensively to control their populations and standardize a whole range of things, including how people speak. Education systems, for all their positive sides, have carried a significant downside for many communities; in many cases, the imposition of a foreign or national culture. What many groups have increasingly articulated is that mother tongue education is a human right, and it has much better results in terms of learning and educational outcomes. Actually, the education systems of the world, because of the standardizing motives of nation states, reflect very little of the world’s linguistic diversity. Most languages are not traditionally written; they’re oral languages.

We do a whole variety of things, like field work, which most people associate with remote villages or mountains, but you can do coming off the 7 train.

BABBEL: Your mission statement also speaks of an institutional bias against language preservation for language preservation’s sake. Do you think academia has come around at all since you began your work?

PERLIN: There’s definitely more awareness in the world of linguistics (and in allied fields like anthropology) that there’s a global linguistic crisis: that languages are disappearing, and something should be done about it.

For some people, that means documentation and putting languages in an archive or museum. What you find when you actually talk to people in these communities, however, is that many of them want some sort of continuity or life for their languages, not just putting them in a box and putting it in an archive. So there is more awareness, but it’s still a deeply insufficient response from the world of linguistics and the wider academic world.

One example is if you look at the debates and discussions that go on, a lot of them are still very theoretical or based on laboratory work, or aimed at things like artificial intelligence or programming languages. Meanwhile, the work of trying to work with communities and document actual linguistic diversity — while there’s still time — is still being undertaken by very few people.

BABBEL: Would you say that’s an issue of funding as well?

PERLIN: There’s no traditional set of funders for endangered language work. The communities that speak these languages are among the poorest and most marginalized in the world. Some, like Welsh and Maori, have been able to do more, but generally, the people controlling the funding are monolingual; they’re speakers of the large languages.

There have been a few exceptions: Documenting Endangered Languages (ELA has been the recipient of one of those grants); DobeS in Germany, which is funded by Volkswagen; and a major ongoing effort in the U.K. called the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. Those three major funding sources have supported a lot of really important field work over the last two decades, and have accelerated and contributed a great deal more than has been available. There’s some money from the U.S. government for Native American languages, but it’s completely inadequate for a crisis where many languages are down to one or a handful of speakers.

BABBEL: How do you decide which languages to work with? Does it mostly depend on the given communities in New York and Toronto, or do some languages become adopted by ELA organically?

What often happens is that communities or individuals hear about us, sometimes from articles and sometimes by word of mouth, and then approach us about possible language projects, whether that means working on Himalayan languages in Queens or a children’s book for speakers of Tsou, an indigenous language of Taiwan.

We like the ability to have ongoing collaborations in a city where we’re all living. It’s a little different than traditional field work, where you go somewhere, you do the work, and then you leave.

BABBEL: The 2010 New York Times article that references ELA mentions a man who was the only speaker of Mamuju in New York, an Austronesian language he brought back from the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Do you encounter lone speakers a lot in New York City?

PERLIN: Yes. There are many people who are, as far as they know, or as far as we know, the only speaker of their language here. Of course, there are languages in the world that have only one speaker. In New York, it’s generally not the one last speaker in the world.

We’re actually in the midst of a mapping project. We already created a language map of Queens in collaboration with Nonstop Metropolis, and now we’re expanding it to include a map of the whole city. We’re trying for the most comprehensive coverage possible, and we’re encountering dozens of situations where, as far as we can find out, there’s one person who happens to be from a given place who is the only speaker of the language.

Florentina Russo speaks in a blend of Neapolitan and Standard Italian.

BABBEL: How does your approach change when you’re dealing with languages that only have a tiny handful of remaining speakers left?

PERLIN: If a language is poorly documented or there’s still relatively little known about it, then you’ll certainly have to rely on a small number of speakers, and hopefully you can generalize from that to an extent, but you have to do that cautiously.

The ideal is to have broader coverage: to talk to the young and old, as well as people from different backgrounds, because to some extent, everyone has an idiolect: their own particular way of speaking. Just imagine a whole dictionary based on your individual understanding of English. So you have to work cautiously and see what can be done in that particular case, depending on the speaker and their time, their patience and their particular knowledge.

BABBEL: Is it often the case that languages die out in their origin countries, but remain in use throughout New York City or other immigrant enclaves?

PERLIN: It can definitely happen. There are cases like that for different reasons, and they often involve mass migration out of the homeland.

If you look at a case like the Bukharian language of Bukharian Jews, which is closely related to Persian, there are more speakers of it in Queens than there are in Bukhara or Uzbekistan.

There are cases where immigrant or diaspora communities have actually preserved the languages better than speakers in the homeland who felt pressure to shift to the national language. You can encounter a speaker of an Italian dialect or variety in New Jersey in some cases, where the town in Italy has mostly assimilated now to Standard Italian, but there wasn’t that kind of pressure in New Jersey, so the family was able to keep up their variety.

At the same time, New York is an engine of assimilation, and people of course need to learn English here. There are also huge languages here like Spanish, Russian and Chinese that people have to learn if they’re embedded in those communities.

BABBEL: Though documentation makes up a large part of your work, you stress the importance of having teachers and immersion schools in place. Of course, this limits the opportunities for a language to spread beyond the borders of a given city. Do you think technology will eventually play a role in both recording languages, as well as passing them on to the next generation of speakers? Tribalingual, for example, is a startup that’s offering e-courses in endangered languages.

PERLIN: I think we’re in an age of lots of tech experimentation around languages. A lot of people are trying to use technology in different forms, for both endangered language documentation and transmission and teaching. So it’s probably too early to tell the extent to which the different apps and websites and tools are actually playing a significant role, but there are a lot of exciting things going on.

I still think — and I think many linguists and activists would agree — the importance of raising children in a language (and speaking a language on a daily basis) are still kind of at the center of any language maintenance or language revival. But to the extent that certain channels like texting or WhatsApp groups or remote tutoring situations are more friendly in different ways to less commonly used languages, they can play a significant role.

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