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How To Learn Sign Language

Back to the Future of Endangered Languages | Colleen Fitzgerald | TEDxUTA

Translator: Jerson Partible
Reviewer: Denise RQ Linguists estimate 6,000-7,000 languages
are spoken worldwide, and so that sounds like
a tremendous amount of languages, tremendous linguistic diversity, but what that actually means is that many, many languages
have few numbers of speakers, and in fact in many countries, as many as 90% or more
of the people in that country speak a language at home other than the national
or official language of that country. 30 languages including English, Arabic,
Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, include more than 4 billion people
speaking the language so if there’s 7 billion people worldwide, and 4 billion people speak 30 languages, that doesn’t leave a lot of speakers left
for the remaining 6,970 languages. And in fact, more than half
of the world’s languages are in critical situations
for their survival. These languages are endangered. UNESCO has a series of criteria that outline how a language is doing
in terms of its survival. And for these languages, if there’s no children in the home
learning the language, if there are only elderly
speakers remaining, those languages are
in severely threatened states. It maybe they’re just vulnerable, and in a few years, a few decades,
the speakers will go, but many languages
are in a critically endangered situation which means
their very survival is threatened. In fact, every continent
in our global world has an endangered language. Endangered languages are found worldwide, So, these critically endangered languages
are on every continent, but tiny languages
are fighting back for their survival. In Europe, the example of Irish
is an amazing story, and inspiring story of language revitalization
and reclamation. In the 19th century,
as speakers started to realize there were fewer and fewer Irish speakers
and English was taking over, they started to engage in efforts in order to see
that their languages survived. In the Gaeltacht, those are
the parts of Ireland where the most number
of speakers are found, the most dense areas
of Irish Gaelic speakers. In the 20th century,
we saw things like radio, Irish Gaelic radio emerged, and so new media offered places
for speakers to regenerate and revive. The indigenous language, Maori,
spoken in New Zealand, is the New Zealand indigenous language, and that language has had lots of challenges that it’s faced. In the 1970s, the communities
started to realize that the survival of the language
was threatened, and so what happened in the 1980s
is that Maori community members sought to recreate that environment
where language is best learnt: in the home. In the home, for child rearing where parents,
and grandparents, and children engage in daily activities,
immersed in their language. This is the place
where children best learn the language. And so in the 1980s,
the Maori created “language nests,” trying to recreate that environment
which was not possible at that time because the parent generation,
the childbearing generation, did not speak the language,
and as a consequence, the Maori language nest model
has taken over in many communities worldwide, seeking to revive and revitalize
their language use that model. Closer to home in Arlington, Texas, only three hours down the road
in Ada, Oklahoma is the Chickasaw Language
Revitalization Program. And this program is vigorously engaged in making sure its language survives
into the next generation. Chickasaw, at best, has 60 to 65 speakers
of the Chickasaw language, and non of them are under the age of 60. You can see that’s a challenging situation
for the Chickasaw tribal members. But what the Chickasaw
Language Program does is they create lots of opportunities
for their citizens to engage and partake in the language. For example, playing cards with the language allow
the grandparents, parents, and children to engage in games,
and have the language there. If we look to Australia where there’s tremendous diversity
in Aboriginal languages, we find an inspiring example of a sleeping language
being reawakened. Jack Buckskin, a young Kaurna man has been instrumental
in bringing his language back. With the help of linguist Rob Amery,
and archival materials in the language, Jack Buckskin learnt his language,
he teaches his language, and now his little girl
speaks the language which she learned in the home. So once again, thanks
to Jack Buckskin and his efforts, and efforts of others around him; what we see is the Kaurna language
again spoken by children. It’s not just about language. Tremendous amounts of information
is stored and encoded in language: culture, traditions, life ways, food, knowledge about the seasons,
climate, plants, and animals. In fact, if we stay in Australia, there’s a significant oral tradition among a number
of different aboriginal people that there was a time
when the sea level was low, and what is now island
was then connected land where people could roam. But then the sea levels rose
and life changed, and this is something that’s found
in many aboriginal traditions: the story of the sea level change. And if fact, there’s parallels
in western science for climate change that 6,000-7,000 years ago
the water levels rose. The Gwich’in in Alaska are in a part of the world
with Arctic climates, and its climate in this environment
is rapidly changing. One of the things that they have lived on
that’s been essential to their survival is the caribou. The caribou plays a strong role
in tradition subsistence, and as the weather is changing,
as the land is changing, the Gwich’in are rapidly engaged
in vigorously documenting what they know about the caribou. They have a rich vocabulary for the parts
and the anatomy of the caribou. Elders have amazing amounts
of traditional knowledge about how the caribou was hunted,
ceremonies involved the caribou so this is a centre
of the life ways of the Gwich’in, and they’re working to make sure that knowledge is there
for future generations, and that knowledge
is tied to the language. But it’s not just Alaska, if we look to the Tohono O’odham
in the Sonoran Desert, what we see is a people vigorously engaged in traditional
food ways, in plant activities. For example, the harvest of the Bahidaj, the red ripe fruit of the Haashan,
of the Saguaro cactus. People still harvest that fruit and that fruit’s harvest in June is usually a signal
that the rains are coming, it’s an integral part of the calendar of the Tohono O’odham
life and traditions. Tohono O’odham community action
is a non-profit, it’s engaged in the language
and cultural revitalization, and making sure these traditional ways of harvesting plants,
of planting foods are kept alive. Ceremonies, traditional games
it’s all about health and life ways, and finding that wholeness
that’s involved in the traditional foods, in the traditional activities,
in the traditional sports. The O’odham have
some of the highest IBD rates in the world and reclaiming that cultural connection can allow them to have
a healthier path to the future. It’s not just about history,
it’s about technology, the Cherokee leaders,
and digital technology with language. So right now,
thanks to localisation projects the Cherokee Language Program
has with Microsoft, Apple, and Google, you can text on your iPhone in Cherokee. The Cherokee have long been leaders
in digital language technology: when Sequoyah invented the writing system,
the Cherokee syllabary in the 1800s, what you soon saw were printing presses creating a large literature
in the Cherokee language, and a large written tradition. When the Cherokee were forced out of
their traditional lands in the south-east into what was then Indian territory
and became Oklahoma, one of the things that was quick to happen was the re-emergence
of the printing presses, and the re-emergence
of a printed Cherokee literature. (voice-over in Cherokee) The little,
green lizard sat on a tree limb. The little green lizard
sat on a tree limb and he would change colours,
green and red. While he sat on the tree limb,
he changed colours. The little lizard was in the grass
and his two lizard friends came along, and they went into the sand. At best, 200 speakers by the last count,
but probably far fewer. Most of the speakers
are in their late 50s or older. We had Janelle Batis, a speaker in her 30s
who was able to speak the language because her parents did not allow them
to speak English in the home. We had her here
on the UT Arlington campus, and were able to use technology
to help create materials that can be used to teach the language, and that have been used
in culture in language camps hosted by the Alabama-Coushatta
Tribe of Texas. Technology also allows people to cross
the digital divide, cross the world, on February 21st, we celebrate
International Mother Language Day, a holiday dedicated by UNESCO
in honour of Bangla activists who in 1952, died to get their language
recognized with official status. Would you die for your language?
They did. They did. So now, rising voices and global voices
lead a global social media campaign to celebrate linguistic diversity,
and tweet in your mother language. And UT Arlington’s Native
American Languages Lab was partner on that project, and so we were very happy
to be tweeting and retweeting all the languages of the world, including Yuchi, just down the street,
Cherokee, just down the road, and Chickasaw, on that day,
as well as Gaelic. Native languages matter.
Indigenous languages matter. And what we see is that tribes
in the United States are languages which are spoken nowhere else
other than in the United States, are having efforts where they’re trying
to support that language, and see that those languages
survive into the next millennium. Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird
is a Wampanoag woman. The Wampanoag language
had not been spoken for 150 years. They’re the tribe that celebrated
that mythical first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim Indians;
perhaps you’ve heard of it. In the years after that contact,
that first contact, what you saw was a tremendous literature
being written in the Wampanoag language. The Bible, yes, but also lots of documents deeds, wills, diaries,
all kinds of materials were written and in fact, it may be the largest corpus of written documents
in any Native American language. The language fell dormant, and one day Jessie had dreams
of her ancestors speaking, visions that her ancestors
were speaking to her in, it was the language. And Jessie went
and got a Masters in Linguistics, and studied these documents,
and related languages, and she breathed new life
into her language. She learnt the language,
she teaches the language, and she used the language in the home, and her little girl is the first
native speaker of Wampanoag in 150 years. The human spirit craves
that connection to ancestors, but the human spirit also
has great hope for the future, and heritage languages allow us
to transcend the past and the future, and to make sure
that heritage, that future, that connection to ancestor
is always there. Thank you. (Applause)

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