Conversations on Diversity: Endangered Languages, Lost Cultures


Throughout the world, from North America to China to Nepal, languages are wiped out by persecution, national unification efforts, and economic development. English Department faculty Sara Trechter, Frank Li, and David Hargreaves detailed the worldwide decline in linguistic diversity during the Center for Multi- cultural and Gender Studies' Conversation on Diversity titled "Linguistic Diversity in the Modern World."
Sara Trechter, English

Sara Trechter began the conversation by discussing the dramatic decline in languages in North America since the 1500's. In the sixteenth century, an estimated 500 languages existed in native North America, compared to only 187 today. Of these, 149 are no longer taught to children. Trechter identified the killing of people, persecution of language, and inculcation of a belief in monolingualism as the major reasons for the decline.

Native American children, separated from their families and placed in boarding schools, were beaten or humiliated if they spoke their native languages. In California, once the most linguistically diverse place in the United States, only scattered remnants of native languages exist. The largest language group, the Yokut, has only sixty-four speakers.

Many people believed that "bilingualism was somehow aberrant. I would maintain that these values are part of American culture, have been inculcated, and are to this day present within our society, especially if we look at California," said Trechter.
Frank Li, English

Li, born in the Heilongjiang province in northeastern China, returned to research the dying languages of the Tungusic people. The Manchu-Tungus languages that once dominated China are spoken only in Inner Mongolia and northeastern China. After centuries of domination, the Manchus were overthrown, and within a very short time, their language was all but lost. Fluent use of Manchu will die with its few elderly speakers.

Oroquen, another Manchu-Tungus language, is still spoken by about two thousand aging people. "The language will no longer exist in a decade or so," said Li. "When a language dies out, the cultural tradition goes with it, so it is essential to get as much work done before these languages disappear."
David Hargreaves, English

Hargreaves was slightly less pessimistic about the fate of Newar-Bhasa, the language of the Newars of Kathmandu, Nepal. According to the 1991 Nepali census, there were about one million people who self-identified as Newar, but only half of them indicated that they speak Newar-Bhasa. This proportion is typical for the hundred minority ethnic groups and languages in Nepal.

Government policies of national unification and economic development lead to abandonment of indigenous languages. Families stopped teaching their children Newar-Bhasa. "The parents' view of their children's needs is that Nepali comes first, and English comes second, because knowing these languages confers economic advantages," said Hargreaves. Nepali is the national language and English the language of commerce.

Is there any hope for languages? In 1990, President Bush signed the Native American Languages Act, which recognizes native languages as an intellectual resource, but Trechter thinks it may be a century too late. In China, the government claims to encourage indigenous language and cultures, but Li said, "The language policy of the country is such that any minority language would not have any chance of surviving." In Nepal, a short-lived socialist government supported indigenous languages with policies like bilingual education. After years of persecution and exile, Newar poets and writers have been allowed to publish again. Movies and media in Newar-Bhasa are beginning to develop. There is no total success, but there may be hope.

The next program is "His, Hers, and Yours: Diversity in Brain Structure," led by Joyce Norman on March 18.

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