Indigenous Languages: From Endangerment to Revitalization and Resilience
Thursday, October 25, 2018
9:00am-5:00pm | 1010 Weiser Hall
The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages, and the area studies centers at the International Institute will present a joint conference on the resilience and revitalization of indigenous languages. Policy recommendations resulting from the conference will be reported to the United Nations Permanent Forum. This conference will serve to strengthen ties between the University of Michigan and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). This event is funded in part by Title VI NRC grants from the U.S. Department of Education.
This event is co-sponsored by: African Studies Center; Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies; Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies; Center for South Asian Studies; Center for Southeast Asian Studies; Department of Anthropology; Department of Linguistics; Department of Middle East Studies; Department of Romance Laguages and Cultures; Donia Human Rights Center; Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies
8:30 – 9:00am Breakfast
9:00 – 9:30am Opening Remarks
9:30 – 11:00am Panel 1: The Process of Endangerment
11:00 – 12:30pm Panel 2: Colonial Legacies
1:30 – 3:30pm Panel 3: Languages Made Visible
3:30 – 5:00pm Panel 4: Revitalization Through Advocacy
5:00 – 5:30pm Closing Remarks
Seeking Hope in the Unknown: Unintended Consequences of Cross-Border Uyghur Migration from China to Soviet Central Asia
Gulnisa Nazarova, Senior Lecturer in Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University
This talk will focus on Uyghur migration from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to Soviet Central Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. It will discuss the main reasons behind this migration, and the living conditions of Uyghurs in the Soviet Union. This migration serves as the historical context for understanding Uyghur identity and the Uyghur language in Central Asia. The talk is based on oral interviews conducted in the summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018 in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan). This fieldwork provides significant insight into the use of Uyghur language among Uyghurs residing in Central Asia, particularly how language use differs among generations. These observations serve as a point of comparison with the contemporary language situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In both cases, a hegemonic language is gradually displacing the use of Uyghur language in daily use.
False Promises and the Perseverance of Mexico’s Indigenous Languages: the Case of Nahuatl
Martín Vega Olmedo, Assistant Professor, Scripps College
Despite the “enrichment” of indigenous languages promised by Mexico’s 1917 Constitution and reaffirmed in 2003, all of Mexico’s 68 officially recognized indigenous languages are currently vulnerable, threatened, or in danger of extinction. The forceful imposition of Hispanic modernity over the course of five centuries is predicated on a conversion from linguistic diversity to uniformity under the sign of the cross, mestizo nationalism, and globalization. Since the 1970s, neoliberal reforms aimed at opening Mexico to global capital have only sped the pace of language extinction. Efforts to revitalize Mexico’s indigenous languages push against this fate, even as native speakers of these languages face discrimination and certain violence for claiming the rights promised in 1917. In this talk, I trace a genealogy of the tension, between suppression and revitalization, that animates a long history of institutional ambivalence toward Mexico’s indigenous languages. I focus my analysis on Nahuatl, a language consisting of about 1.5 million speakers yet still deemed “at risk” by the Endangered Languages Project. As Mexico’s most commonly spoken indigenous language, and the principal language of the former Mexica (or Aztec) empire, Nahuatl enjoys a privileged position relative to Mexico’s other indigenous languages. Such is its prominence that there have been proposals to standardize Nahuatl as a means to preserve it. While recognizing linguistic standardization as one element of ongoing and laudable revitalization efforts, I want to ask what might happen if we hold off the desire to standardize and consider dialectical variance not as a hindrance but as a sign of a language’s vitality.
Indigenous Languages and Indigenous Speakers: The Colonial Emergence of a Quechua Overlay and Why It Matters Today
Bruce Mannheim, Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan
Instead of the imposition of the colonial language, Castilian, on an indigenous population, the Spanish settlement of the southern highlands of Peru resulted in the emergence of settler registers of two of the indigenous languages, registers that remain living languages today, even though their political-economic base has been transformed. The settler register was regimented to Spanish semantically, pragmatically and structurally. The doubling of Native Andeans was thus itself doubled. First-language Quechua speakers have a classical DuBoisian double consciousness, seeing themselves in part through the evaluative eyes of others, but so too do non-Quechuas see them through the lenses of cultural, social, and linguistic overlays. Today, scholars, such as linguists and anthropologists are more likely to find their research intermediated by the overlay—the Spanish-inflected Quechua--than by the Quechua of monolinguals, and to not recognize the fundamental differences between them. Pretenses to the intimacy of fieldwork notwithstanding, scholarly knowledge of the Andean languages and cultures is filtered through the overlay, meaning that language structure and social practice are both rendered invisible. What we are facing is the flipside of James Scott’s (1998) notion of “legibility,” through which populations that cannot easily be shoehorned into the rationality of a state-ordered society find that their language, culture, and social relations are literally rendered invisible in favor of the overlay. The invisibility has deeply shaped the prospects of forging autonomously Quechua public media and educational systems, and leaves a striking problem for other forms of language revitalization: Is the monolingual register the focus of revitalization efforts or the settler overlay?
The Restorative Role of Indigenous Language Vitality
Colleen M. Fitzgerald, Professor of Linguistics, The University of Texas at Arlington
Of the roughly 7,000 languages in the world, as many as half of these may have no fluent first language speakers remaining as the next century begins. This loss would be immense, for Indigenous communities and their heritage, and for science, in the roadblocks it would present to understanding the brain's creative and cognitive capabilities for language. In this paper, I argue that language revitalization, properly conceived, presents a pathway of hope. Scholarship in Indigenous language revitalization has noted that the conception of language articulated by practitioners, elders and Indigenous scholars invokes metaphors using holistic notions or drawing on conceptions of well-being (Meek 2010, Chew 2016, Leonard 2017). Related to this, parallel bodies of research in educational success (Romero Little & McCarty 20016, McCarty 2011) and on metrics of physical, mental and spiritual health (Hallett et al. 2007, Kirmayer et al. 2011) provide evidence that each correlates positively with language and culture. Very real reasons exist for retaining, using, and teaching Indigenous languages, given that language revitalization has arguably played a significant adaptive function in the Indigenous communities of the U.S., Canada and Australia (Fitzgerald 2017), and thus might serve as a "protective factor" for Indigenous communities elsewhere in the world.
Minority Indigenous Languages in the Middle East and North Africa
Jeffrey Heath, Professor of Linguistics, University of Michigan
Major languages of the zone such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish became ideologically loaded in the 20th Century and remain so today, but to some extent this is limited to written language and formal speech. Against this background, other languages survive by staying “below the radar” as inconspicuous or harmless spoken languages. I survey several examples from Arab countries including Coptic, neo-Aramaic, Berber, and Saharan Songhay. Then I shift focus to the status of (mostly unwritten) forms of spoken “Arabic” in North Africa, including Moroccan colloquial, Judeo-Arabic, and Maltese. Movements to raise their status to resemble that of national languages have begun. This works on two levels: broadcast media (especially radio) using local vernaculars, and literacy. Only the latter requires standardization, which raises its own set of problems.
Indigenous Languages in New York City: Ideology and Conservation
Dan Kaufman, Founder and Executive Director, Endangered Language Alliance
The Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit based in NYC, has collaborated on a range of language projects with indigenous immigrants and indigenous peoples of NY over the last 10 years. In this talk, I seek to answer the following basic questions: Who are the indigenous people living in New York City and other large cities in the US? To what extent do indigenous people in New York have shared experiences? Is there hope for maintaining indigenous languages in urban diaspora contexts?
I draw upon an ongoing collaboration with the NYC Dept. of Health investigating language maintenance and health among six indigenous groups from Latin America in NYC and contrast their experience and attitudes with those of immigrant communities from Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. I argue that, in addition to socioeconomic factors, language ideology plays a strong role in the survival of languages in diaspora. However, language ideology, especially how speakers view the appropriate domains for a language and the inter-relations between languages, can be historically conservative and slow to change. I conclude by offering some ideas on how these notions can be made more adaptive in the interest of conserving indigenous languages and cultures in a rapidly urbanizing world.
Language Prophets and Language Profits?
Justin Brown, Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town
In this paper I report on aspects of the ongoing Khoisan cultural restoration movement in South Africa. I focus on the resilience of language activists in Cape Town working on/with Khoekhoegowab. In particular, I examine the work of two language activists both of whom have accomplished a great deal despite numerous obstacles. I have dubbed these activists language ‘prophets’ to describe the awareness-creating work they do, often at cost to themselves. My research has focused mainly on the personal and symbolic significance of these language revival efforts and I argue that the material or economic benefits for Khoisan language activists are minimal. In this paper however, I look at how the two activists in question are involved in a range of activities, and how some of them are in fact tied to economic subsistence. I have been struck by how much of the literature on language revivalism carries economic undertones and uses economic metaphors (linguistic resources, capital, investment and commodification). While I continue to hold that these metaphors can never explain the whole picture, in this paper I argue that spiritual and symbolic factors do co-exist with financial ones, often in a seamless and interesting manner.
Declining Diversity and Languages in India
G.N. Devy, Bhasa Research and Publication Center
This presentation will focus on the status of language diversity in India for the last five decades. It will offer a historical overview of the diversity status of languages and the complications arising out of lack of authentic data on languages in India. It will then present details of the People's Linguistic Survey, a movement fighting language loss. The presentation will discuss the engagement between development of information technology and the rapidly vanishing languages. It will conclude with comments on the inter-dependence of democracy and diversity.