Endangered Language Loss Calls for Preservation, Revitalization

A growing number of languages are in danger of being lost. At the UA, a number of researchers are working to preserve and sustain what is considered vital to human self-identity.
April 21, 2017

Every two weeks, the time period after which many people collect a paycheck, a language dies.

So concerning is the potential for language loss that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation this year launched the Documenting Endangered Languages program to advance knowledge related to endangered human languages. The launch of the program is even more urgent given the "imminent death" of about half of all current languages being used. By the NEH's estimation, about 6,000-7,000 languages languages currently exist in the world.

At the University of Arizona, a number of faculty and student researchers are involved in activities meant to document and archive endangered and lost langauges, while working to preserve others that are endangered.

Others are working to help preserve languages classified as "moribund," meaning that no children are learning their native languages as their first languages in their own homes, said Elizabeth Kickham, a visiting assistant professor in the UA Department of Linguistics.

"We need to celebrate and raise awareness for the heritage of minoritized languages," Kickham said.

"Languages allow people to create an identity for themselves and as community members," she added. "Language is so intimately tied to culture it not only reflects cultural norms and cultural practices, it encodes them and is also influenced by them. Language and culture are mutually influential. And it's difficult to separate them. You can, but you lose something when you do."

Among the nearly 7,000 languages currently in existance, more than 350 languages are spoken in the U.S., including Ukrainian, Turkish, Tagalog, Gujarati and Serbian, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Arizona, American Indian communities speak languages such as Tewa, O'odham, Yavapai and Hopi, all of which have been classified at varying degrees of endangerment. However, certain languages, such as Navajo, are thriving in Arizona.

Internationally, 530 languages are considered endangered, including the Argentinean language, Mapuche, and the language of Paipai, which can be found in Mexico.

The UA is an important site for language preservation. One of the leading figures in the field is UA Regents' Professor of Linguistics Ofelia Zepeda, a native speaker of Tohono O'odham, who has made advocating for indigenous languages her life's work. Zepeda, an author and poet, uses literacy to generate awareness about indigenous languages. As a result of her efforts, she was granted the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Award and the Ofelia Zepeda Endowment in Native American Language Documentation and Revitalization was named in her honor.

Another advocate of mother languages and culture is Benedict Colombi, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology, an expert in indigenous life and the relationship cultures have to the environment.

A number of internationally renowned UA programs — some of them decades old — are dedicated to language preservation. The National Center for Interpretation addresses intercultural communication through workshops, education and traing, and the American Indian Language Development Institute provides training to improve and expand efforts to revitalize and promote the use of Indigenous languages, specificially across generational devides.

Most recently, Christian Ruvalcaba, a graduate fellow with the UA Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, launched "The Language Capital Project" and is creating maps for a corresponding website to help non-national language speakers to find and connect with one another. Ruvalcaba is also building a complementary website that will encourage collaboration among non-national language speakers in Tucson to understand the different cultures of the region.

The UA offers a number of courses designed to educate students about issues related to language preservation, while providing tools to work in the field. Courses include "American Indian Languages," LING210; "Language in the World," LING 150A, taught by Amy Fountain, an associate professor in the UA Department of Linguistics, and "Language Documentation, Preservation and Revitalization," LING 421/521, taught by Kickham this semester.

"One of the advantages of studying at the University of Arizona is the wealth of linguistic diversity to be found among the student population, especially given the number of languages indigenous to the region," said Kickham, who involved her students in language preservation training this semester. The students produced writings, memes, videos, language postcards, immersion lessons and a map, among other resources, to explore languages and to initiate a dialogue with others on campus about the important of language preservation.

"Exposure to diverse populations, including languages, enables a richer understanding of the human experience," Kickham said. "Languages are beautiful when people hear someone speaking a language they needn't feel that the person doesn’t know how to speak English but rather that person has a wealth of resources."