As you might have gathered if you’ve been reading my blog, it’s not just linguists who are concerned with endangered languages, and it’s not just for the sake of preserving some dry vocabulary and grammar rules that people work against language loss. There are countless individuals all over the world who identify as “language activists,” and who work on all of the many components that are needed to maintain their ancestral tongues.
At the beginning of the process, information about the endangered language must be documented. This usually takes the form of what are known as “elicitations,” just sitting down with fluent speakers and learning as many words and forms of the language as possible.
Since language is more than just a collection of words, documenting a language becomes even richer if the speakers can produce stories
In addition to documenting the language, activists work both externally to shape language policies in the wider community that are more supportive of linguistic diversity, such as a law that just passed in Alaska last week, and internally to produce materials and boost the prestige of the language within the community.
Although many linguists understand the value, and urgency, of this kind of work, unfortunately there is just too much work to do and precious little time for many of these languages. And beyond that, no one, not even me with my amateurish devotion, can really ever understand what’s at stake for these communities, or be invested in these projects in the way that indigenous activists are. Many of them have dedicated their lives to this work, and they need all the help they can get.
The Living Tongues Institute (for which I’ve expressed my deep admiration before) is currently trying to raise funds to provide language documenting kits for language activists in 8 communities around the world. Each kit includes a laptop computer, a handheld digital audio recorder, a still digital camera and a portable video camera, plus technological training and logistical support.
If you love hearing that song from Papua New Guinea, or that Tofa story from Siberia, and are inspired by the tireless, passionate people who are working desperately to save their languages, please consider making a donation!
All videos here courtesy of Living Tongues/the Enduring Voices project.