Tech linguists work to save language
Tech linguists work to save language
Issue date: 10/1/07 Section: News
Colleen Fitzgerald, a Texas Tech associate professor of linguistics, is in
a group working to save one of the world's 6,000 to 7,000 languages from
Fitzgerald said she and three Tech graduate students studying linguistics
traveled to the Tohono O'odham Reservation near the Mexican border in
Arizona during the summer as part of a language-revitalization project.
The language of the Tohono O'odham tribe is one of thousands of world
languages disappearing at a rate of one every two weeks, according to the
Web site for the Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages,
"The world loses out on the entire base of cultural knowledge,
philosophical, tradition, plant and animal knowledge when it loses a
language," Fitzgerald said.
Globally, there is a handful of primary regions where the survival of
native languages is threatened.
These regions comprise parts of Central America, South America, Eastern
Siberia, Australia, the U.S. Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and the
U.S. Southwest, according to the Web site.
She said there are approximately 8,000 living speakers of the O'odham
language, but determining this number "depends on how you measure and how
There are people who say they don't speak (it) even though they do speak it
because they were maybe physically punished when they were in boarding
schools or Bureau of Indian Affairs schools," she said, "but then there
will be other people who tell you they can speak it, but they can't
Fitzgerald said the population of O'odham speakers has decreased 25 percent
since the 1990 census, and a study by the tribal council estimates the
language will face extinction by 2079.
"When people lose their heritage language, they lose an essential part of
their identity," she said.
Kristen Jones, a graduate linguistics student from Amarillo, said she is
participating in the language revitalization project because the study of
language diversity systems is the key to understanding human cognition.
"The preservation and revitalization of Tohono O'odham means something much
more to the community," She said. "It means preserving their culture and
carrying it into the future."
Though members of the tribe are expected to live beyond 2079, Fitzgerald
said the language is endangered because most of its current speakers are
more than 30 years old and few, if any, children are learning the language.
"It was kind of a test to see what we could do," She said of the summer
project. "We worked with teachers and trained them on different technology
like editing audio and worked with one of my collaborators to help him
develop language materials for classes at the tribal community college."
Nathan Jahnke, a graduate linguistics student from Houston who is
participating in the language-revitalization project, said the group is
working on digitizing the largest Tohono O'odham dictionary.
"Obviously, if you want to learn a language, you'll need to look up words
in the dictionary," he said, "and right now the best one isn't digital and
is out of print, so that puts a serious limit on how easily people can
learn the language."
Along with the digitizing the dictionary, Jahnke said the group also is
creating multimedia teaching materials, including PowerPoint presentations.
"We tried to imagine what kind of materials kids today would get into," he
said, "and we decided that multimedia stuff is crucial, and there is
virtually none of that in O'odham right now."
Fitzgerald said ensuring the translation of the language into other texts
is important, but creating audio recordings of O'odham speakers also is an
objective of language revitalization.
"If you have something written down on a page, you can't hear intonations,
which changes a sentence from a statement versus a question," she said.
"Trying to capture the details of that kind of pitch and intonation, that's
very expressive and meaningful, you can't do that without audio."
Video also is important, Fitzgerald said, because fully comprehending a
language does not end with learning its words and how they sound, but
includes knowing the words' context within conversations.
"Different cultures may have different conventions for how they use
language, like how close they are when they speak to each other," she said,
"and also whether hand gestures are used and how they are used and whether
facial expressions are used."
Fitzgerald said her interest in the O'odham language began when she was a
doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the 1990s, when she took a
linguistics course taught by a member of the Tohono O'odham nation.
"Initially I thought that the language had already been studied and there
was nothing new to say," she said, "but what I realized is that I kept
having questions that no one had answers for, and that's when I started
working with speakers."
Fitzgerald said O'odham has many linguistic features that do not occur
frequently in other languages, including a completely free word order
except for the fact the auxiliary verb is second in the sentence.
Jahnke said language revitalization is beneficial to individual cultures as
well as the entirety of humanity.
"It's vital to keep endangered languages like Tohono O'odham alive so that
if we have new questions about how things work in them 50, 100 or 200 years
from now, we will be able to get answers," he said. "A dead language isn't
of much use to anyone."