Breathing Life into Language

December 17, 2016 by

Mike Campbell (from Glossika) first raised this question for me many years ago: Why are you not out saving languages? My answer then was that I really didn’t have the time and I felt there were other people already doing it. I still believe I was honest when I said that and, in part, it’s still valid. But now I have a different spin on things and here’s why.


Even though I gave a clear answer to that question, Mike got me thinking about what I could be doing in my own way to raise awareness of saving, reviving and documenting endangered languages. At that time, I had already started on my path with the Polyglot Conference. From the outset, I always wanted to celebrate languages and cultures of the region where the conference was to be held. I also wanted to bring in the diverse ways in which we can work with language, including the subject of field linguistics. It’s a topic that captures the imagination and is exciting to me. I picture people out in the middle of nowhere, using their pads, pens and audio recording equipment to capture languages on the decline directly from the last few speakers. Then they can be recorded and studied by people later.


This idea of keeping a strand at the Polyglot Conference about endangered languages grew from there. In Budapest we heard from Susanna Zaraysky about how a boy in Bosnia was saved because he could speak to Spanish-speaking US soldiers in Ladino (his native language, similar to Spanish) and documented his story in her film “Saved by Language“. From there we went to Novi Sad, where Luis Miguel Rojas Brescia talked about linguistics and discussed his experience, cataloging and learning languages indigenous to Latin America (see this BBC article about his work on Selk’nam).

Susanna’s talk in Budapest got me into studying some Ladino with Hippocrene’s Beginner’s Ladino course. It was an easy one to learn from Spanish and so an easy win for me. I then went to the synagogue in Istanbul, where the language is used and listened to interesting and funny presentations in the language, celebrating its music, history and the culture attached to it. I found that experience thoroughly rewarding, but still the idea of one of the indigenous languages in exotic locations seemed like a far-off dream to me. I loved the idea, but felt I still lacked the time and ability to use the language to remain motivated.


In NYC we heard about the Lakota language in a video we showed called “Rising Voices”, talking about the journey of a community to revitalise their native language and pass it onto the youth. Right away I was enthused again and felt compelled to do the full search on how I could do the summer course in the language, as ever good language learning addict does!

But once again, I came back down to earth and settled back into my routine of learning languages that I knew I would more likely use and could go to a place and speak with people.


This year in Thessaloniki, Greece at the Polyglot Conference was the game changer for me. We had Karen Sarhon, the lady I met at the synagogue in Istanbul, over to talk about Ladino. I wanted people be feel as excited about the language as I did years earlier. Also it fitted it well with a language conference in the city, where over 60% of the population spoke the language before WWII.


But there were talks this year that took me beyond that even. Two speakers really spoke to my heart and got me properly converted on the subject of saving languages and language revival. Ghil’ad Zuckermann, works on awakening “sleeping beauties” and giving them back to their communities again. I loved his explanation of this process and why it is important. The presentations by Ghil’ad and Karen will appear on the Polyglot Conference YouTube channel in 2017.


The other strong voice for me was that of Alan King, speaking about being a “Microglot” – someone who studies small languages. I loved the term and admired his work in The Americas on the Nawat language of El Salvador.  He introduced me to the option of getting involved in another indigenous language project he’d started. This time it was one that needed to be awoken from its slumber. Yes, a real sleeping beauty from Honduras, called Lenca!


The exciting thing about the project for me is that the desire to reintroduce the language into the community comes from the Lenca people and is supported by their government. This really motivated to learn it me because my role was clear. I would learn the language and support the learning for the groups of people in Honduras, who would study their ancestral language, start using it again and teach it to others. Using social media in this way to give back a language to its culture really gripped me and I devoured the first part of the course Alan shared with me in no time. Now I am hungry for more.

Now I really see that I can go back to Mike’s initial question with a very different answer and some solid experience. I DO have time to do my part and learn one or more of these endangered language or even a sleeping beauty. I can contribute to that effort in a meaningful way by learning it myself, and supporting others in the process too simply by using it. In this online era, we’re all closer than ever to all the languages we could ever want to know or speak. Dedicating a bit of time to a sleeping beauty is a rewarding experience, not just because it sounds cool, but more so because it feels satisfying to the soul and enriches you as a person.


If you would like to know more about getting into this field, do leave a comment and get in touch. Hope to see you amongst the growing number of microglots! 🙂


Join us in Reykjavik for the Polyglot Conference in 2017. Get all the skinny and join in the chatter on our Facebook group! 🙂

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