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Mavericks Help Nations Find Their Voice With Revitalization Efforts
For generations, the voices recalled the story of creation, how the Great Spirit collected swirls of dust from all four directions and formed the people of the earth. The voices whispered about the shape-shifting demon, created at the same time, who tormented the people. And even though the Great Spirit cast the demon into a bottomless pit, the voices warned how the demon seeks revenge in the form of fangs and stingers of poisonous creatures.
And in less than two lifetimes, those voices may be silenced.
Which is why several faculty and students from the Department of Linguistics and TESOL are lending their knowledge and skills to a growing revitalization effort in Oklahoma and fighting to pull several endangered languages from the brink of extinction.
"Language is core to who you are," said Lori McLain Pierce, a Linguistics doctoral student. "It's a very important part of our identity."
Pierce is one of several students, led by department chair Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, who traveled earlier this year to learn more about the Chickasaw, Comanche and Cherokee nations and review efforts by those groups to save their language and, ultimately, themselves.
"For many people, language and culture are tied directly together," Fitzgerald said. "To not have a tie to your language means you don't have a tie to your culture."
This past spring, Fitzgerald taught a workshop on sustainability and language endangerment. The class looked at theoretical models to revitalize a language and put those models into practice with several American Indian tribes. Repeated trips to Oklahoma and participation in a handful of workshops opened up several opportunities for Fitzgerald and her team to not only study an endangered language but help develop materials tribes might use to create native speakers.
The group formed a partnership with Comanche Nation College to study the Comanche language and develop educational materials for tribal members. Several students and faculty visited the University of Oklahoma for the Breath of Life workshop, which Fitzgerald said is "for tribes who no longer have people who speak their language as first-language speakers." And in Tahlequah, Okla., the heart of the Cherokee Nation, Linguistic faculty and students attended an annual revitalization workshop in which scholars from across North America came together to work on materials detailing the Cherokee language.
It was during this workshop in Tahlequah that Fitzgerald met with members of the Osage tribe - a group where the language is no longer spoken first-hand - and the stark reality of language loss became clear.
"Languages encapsulate knowledge," she said. "We may have knowledge of the natural world, for example, that we can only get to via language. A lot of indigenous communities, before industrialization and before globalization, had a closer relationship with their natural world. They knew what the uses for plants and animals were and had names for them. And a lot of that knowledge has been lost as the language has been lost."
A language of love and research
Six months and half a world away, Dr. Jerry Edmondson, Professor of Linguistics, is decked in mint green scrubs in a clinic in Taiwan. Armed with a fiber optic camera, he and fellow members of the Monsoon Asia Project have set out to capture how words and syllables are physically formed. They're looking down the throats of volunteers and recording the phonetic realization in consonants in several Asian languages.
"It was incredible to see what was going on instead of simply guessing," he said.
Edmondson has made a career of researching dozens of Asian languages and dialects - some lost deep in the steamy jungles of the region - and presenting his findings at international conferences. He spent his research sabbatical in the fall of 2009 as part of a team that examined the Southern Min language, which is spoken by 70 percent of Taiwanese (even though standard Chinese is the "official" language of the government and education).
Using innovative technology with transnasal laryngoscopy, Edmondson and his team worked in a lab to examine Taiwanese locals and their speech patterns. With a camera placed just above the vocal folds (or "vocal chords," as they're more commonly known), the researchers could capture how movement through the throat forms sound. Edmondson said Southeast Asian languages have "a more complex set of sounds" and are ideal for research.
Fitzgerald said regardless of the language, the research offers insight into not only that speaker's culture but how they function on a physiological level.
"In linguistics, we're interested to see how languages work," she said. "Some languages start with the subject in their sentences; in others, the subject is last. Knowing what the possibilities are for how language can operate helps us understand how the brain works."
And preserving that information, despite centuries of language degradation, has been aided by improved research techniques and advances in recording hardware and software.
"Languages are dying all the time," Edmondson said. "But technology has made a huge impact [on documentation]. You want to secure as many recordings as you can to preserve them."
A case for the voiceless
In 1991, conversations and lectures at a national linguistics conference turned to the seriousness of endangered languages and a call for greater revitalization efforts. Fitzgerald said it wasn't enough to be able to research and document these languages; consideration was necessary to examine how best to keep these languages alive. Fortunately, that two-prong approach to the field is essential to the linguistics curriculum at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"The two main strengths of our department is language documentation and language revitalization," Fitzgerald said. "We're very good as describing and detailing minority languages from around the world. Training students to document and study languages has been a long tradition. We're well known for it."
Another component of the department that is quickly becoming a tradition is an emphasis on service learning and community outreach. In the past year, Linguistic and TESOL students have amassed nearly 500 volunteer hours, working with folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area through groups like Arlington Reads, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth and the LIFT program at Aldersgate Methodist Church.
"It's a win-win-win situation," Fitzgerald said. "The community wins because there's a huge need for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers. Our students win because they gain professional experience and are able to put what they're learning in the classroom into real life. And our university wins because we're making a difference in our community and showing we're an engaged campus and that we do care about the citizens of our community. ... We want our students to be aware of other people and to contribute."
Fitzgerald admits the task of rescuing a language from the brink can seem a bit daunting. There's an urgency in the work - if only because there are living, breathing people who will benefit.
"Anyone involved in language revitalization work has to be hopeful. You make a difference," she said. "You may not see where Chickasaw, for example, is as widely spoken as Spanish. But as long as there are Chickasaw speakers, Chickasaw is still alive."
To aid in the revitalization effort, the Comanche Nation has made internships available to UT Arlington students. Fitzgerald said collaborations between the Chickasaw and Osage groups are being developed and she expects those relationships to provide fruitful research. That research, coupled with planned expansion of the department's degree offerings and service-learning requirements, will ideally attract higher caliber faculty and students, Fitzgerald said.
One of those students, Pierce, is only beginning her doctoral studies and has not yet decided on the subject of her dissertation. But she's leaning toward examining the Chickasaw language because, as she says, she wants to do something more than simply study an endangered language and remain impartial.
"What attracts me to working with endangered language is making a contribution to the community," she said. "We learn the theory and that's great, but unless you're able to do something that benefits other people, what is it worth?"
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