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Saving Voices
Indigenous Language Initiative helps revive ailing languages
By Katharine Dunn

In the old days, the Lardil people of Mornington Island, Australia, just off the country’s northern coast, knew the stories and traditions of their ancestors. They spread those traditions in Lardil and, on occasion, in Damin, a sacred language reserved for young men’s initiation ceremonies. The Lardil had no words for numbers above “three,” because they weren’t needed; resources were shared and there was no currency. When white people arrived about 90 years ago, Lardil children were placed in schools and forced to speak English. And the culture began to die.

“Growing up Lardil [today], you think being a good person means being as much like a white person as you can,” says Norvin Richards, a professor of linguistics who has been working with the Lardil community for nearly a decade. White people now hold most of the island’s jobs, and poverty and crime are widespread in Lardil communities. Of the 1,200 Lardil on the island, only one or two remain who are fully fluent in the language.

“Language death in [Lardil] communities is the least of their problems,” admits Richards. “But I’m trained in that, so I do what I can.” He returns to the island every year or two, and he’s now finishing a book of traditional stories in Lardil and English. Language plights like the Lardil’s are “playing out in a similar way in communities around the world,” says Richards, who is troubled by this trend not only because he believes oral literatures, like art, are valuable for the unique perspectives they offer on the world, but also because he sees minority-language survival as a human-rights issue. Many languages are endangered because of the political and cultural dominance of other languages (often English). By century’s end, Richards estimates, between half and 90 percent of the world’s languages could disappear.

In response to these concerns, MIT’s linguistics department recently launched the Indigenous Languages Initiative, a two-year master’s program for members of indigenous communities whose languages are dead or dying. The program’s goal is to give native speakers the tools to revive their languages. Stephanie Fielding of the Mohegan tribe in Connecticut, the program’s first student, graduated in May.

Training Native Speakers
Many endangered languages have been studied by linguists at MIT because of Ken Hale, a linguistics professor who died in 2001. Hale, who spoke about 50 languages, traveled to rural communities in countries ranging from Australia to Nicaragua to work on language revival. And starting in the 1960s, he also occasionally brought indigenous speakers to MIT for linguistics training, so they could help their communities revive their ailing native tongues.

Two years ago, this practice was formalized as the Ken Hale Memorial Master’s Program, in which native speakers (or indigenous people committed to learning their languages) study linguistics, learn the skills necessary to run language programs in their communities, and graduate with credentials that will help them win funding for those programs. The idea is that native speakers are more motivated to help their communities and are also more readily accepted by them than “outsider linguists” would be. This is the first program devoted to training native speakers of endangered languages to take over the work of outside linguists. Richards hopes to someday enhance the program with a resource center for linguists that includes dictionaries and educational tools.

Nitana Hicks, who graduates from the master’s program next year, is the second student to come to MIT from the Wampanoag tribe of Mashpee, Cape Cod. In the early 1990s, community members started the Wompanoag Language Reclamation Project to revive their language, which hadn’t been spoken for about a century. They sent Jessie Little Doe Baird, SM ‘00, for linguistics training at MIT, where she worked with Hale and Richards on a Wompanoag book of grammar (which became her thesis) and a dictionary, using 17th-century texts–including a bible translated by a missionary–as references.

Baird now teaches Wompanoag on the cape, where Hicks first learned the language. At MIT Hicks spends a couple of hours a week speaking the language with Richards. When they run up against things they don’t yet know how to say, they refer to living languages that are also part of the Algonquin family for clues.

After she graduates, Hicks plans to return to the cape and teach Wompanoag full time. One of the stipulations of the Wompanoag Language Reclamation Project is that the language must first be taught to any member of the community who wants to learn it before it can be taught to outsiders. Rules like these are well respected by the Indigenous Language Initiative. “I have to bear in mind what I’m trying to do is not make [indigenous people] learn their language and culture but give them choices,” says Richards.

Language death itself is sometimes a matter of choice. Recent graduate Ken Hiraiwa, PhD ‘05, worked on the syntax of Buli, a language of northern Ghana that could disappear because parents no longer want to pass it on to their kids. “If you want a job in the capital, you have to speak Twi or English,” he says. Parents fear that by passing on their native minority languages, they inhibit their children’s ability to speak the majority language properly. But that doesn’t mean they want to give up their languages; Richards says he’s never been in a community that wasn’t interested in saving its native tongue.

But doing so means keeping up with the times. If Lardil is going to survive, says Richards, the Lardil people will need to modernize it somewhat, coming up with words for “corporation,” “car,” “computer,” and, say, “five.”

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