Languishing languages: snapshots of efforts around the globe to preserve unique ways of thinking and speaking.

Author:Block, Ben
 
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Libu Lakhi ignored his parents. He paid no attention to his classmates. None of them understood why the 18-year old student would leave his village to study something as useless as the Tibetan dialect Namuyi Khatho.

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He knew it would not lead to a well-paying, secure job like his parents wanted for him, but he was drawn to studying the language that he could neither speak, read, nor write. "Why did I want to study Tibetan?" Lakhi recently asked himself. "I wanted to study Tibetan because I am Tibetan."

The Namuyi people live in villages throughout the western Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China's Sichuan province. Linguists estimate that 5,000 people speak Namuyi Khatho, mostly older generations. The dialect is a telling way to differentiate them from their Tibetan neighbors, in addition to variations in their Buddhist practices, clothing, and agriculture. Many of these cultural emblems are changing: Tractors are replacing plows, and automobile drives to city restaurants are replacing long festive marches during wedding ceremonies. The Sichuan Chinese dialect and the Nuosu language of the Yi ethnic group are replacing Namuyi Khatho.

"So many other Namuyi Khatho people, when I was growing up, they didn't care. We speak a really different Tibetan dialect, but they don't care if you're able to read or write in Tibetan," Lakhi said. "Sometimes I think in 10 years maybe it will disappear."

Languages come and go, yet the rate of their disappearance has accelerated in recent decades. Of the 6,700 languages spoken worldwide, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) estimates that half may be gone by century's end. Others estimate a more dramatic loss: Alaska Native Language Center founder Michael Krauss predicts that humankind will experience the death or "terminal stage" for 90 percent of the world's languages within this century.

Fortunately, Lakhi is not the only champion of the world's endangered languages. Empowered minority communities across the world are mobilizing to resurrect, revive, or protect their native languages. While they are receiving greater support from governments and institutions than ever before, the challenges they must overcome--urbanization, globalization, environmental change--are likewise accelerating. Models of effective language revitalization do exist. Coupled with renewed movements to deepen cultural pride, activists hope that many languages can avoid being silenced forever.

Dying Dialogues

Clifford Eaglefeathers did not choose to learn English. Born on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, United States, he first heard the language at age six when he attended government boarding school. After an early childhood spent hearing and speaking Cheyenne with family, friends, and the most respected tribal elders, Eaglefeathers' schoolteacher scolded him for speaking his native tongue--a slap on the wrist or relegation to the corner.

Six decades later, no one under 50 speaks fluent Cheyenne. "Things are beginning to change now because the language is not being spoken by our children anymore," said Eaglefeathers, who teaches Native American studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York. "By 2036 we predict the Cheyenne language will be gone, if not sooner."

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Some 473 languages are classified as nearly extinct, meaning that only a few elderly speakers are alive and children are not actively learning the language. The Austin, Texas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics estimates that the Western Hemisphere accounts for 182 of those languages on the brink, with 152 in the Pacific, 84 in Asia, 46 in Africa, and 9 in Europe.

Languages disappear for various reasons. Colonized communities forbidden to teach their own language often find the uphill battle of revitalizing it too difficult or...

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