Preserving Indigenous Languages

Two summers ago, I was given an incredible opportunity to visit my grandmother in China.  She lives in a beautiful city named Fuzhou, which is the capital of the Fujian province and one of its largest cities.

For most of my life, I have lived in the United States; therefore, I have been surrounded with a high majority of English speakers and raised in a fairly westernized lifestyle. The thought of traveling out of the country was about more than just seeing my lovely grandmother for me— it was also a chance to be able to expose myself into a new and different culture in a very educating and rewarding way, and in particular, a new culture that was a part of my own family history.

Back in 2008 I stayed in Fuzhou for a few months with my grandma and several relatives. They were extremely kind and introduced me to an ample amount of fascinating cultural aspects and unique traditions there, such as the food, ancient landmarks, customs, and rituals. I discovered that Fuzhou cuisine’s taste is light and often with a mixed spicy and sour flavor, such as the Spicy and Sour Fish Maw Soup. One of my favorite landmarks there is called “The Garden on the Sea” in Xiamen of the Fujian Province, which is a world of sea breezes and exotic architecture with a Mediterranean flavor. Even the language they use is entirely different from English, speaking Fuzhounese, which sounds so distinctive and original in comparison to all the other languages that I have listened to. I absolutely adored their language, people, and culture. I was beyond grateful and thrilled about experiencing an anew lifestyle. Thus, I expected to see something even more diverse and especial for my return trip two summers ago.

Sadly, my arrival that summer was not what I had anticipated.

The very first thing I noticed when I arrived was that more people had started to speak English and Mandarin around me instead of Fuzhounese, which is the traditional language. I found myself constantly thinking about how much I missed the old Fuzhou, where people walked around speaking their very one-of-a-kind language. Students are being taught English and Mandarin at schools due to the extreme popularity of those languages, instead of being taught a language that has roots in all of the ancient history and meanings of their country.

I also observed that people had started to follow trends that you would normally see in Western or European countries rather than practicing their own cultural traditions. For instance, they stopped wearing and focusing on their traditional dresses named Qipaos and started exhibiting fashion trends from America and European countries. In addition, they also began to follow media trends set by the celebrities in Hollywood.

I asked myself… what happened to the individuality there, or even to the country as a whole? Why had people stopped valuing what they had and started to follow things that in the past had appeared to be unauthentic and imitative? I was shocked and disappointed about how much the entire city had changed.

After I began working with the Student Language Exchange, I came to the realization that Fuzhou is not the only place where a wonderful culture is slowly fading away due to the globalized society that we live in today. This dilemma of losing a culture’s history and language can occur anywhere. There are approximately 7,000 different languages in the world, and over 5,000 of them are spoken by indigenous peoples who represent only 6 percent of the world’s total population. Terrifyingly, around 90 percent of these languages are in danger of becoming extinct and at least one language dies every two weeks.

Losing an indigenous language is losing more than just the language itself— it is also the loss of that community’s heritage, power, history, and their knowledge to share with the future generations. Language ties so many aspects of our identity together. For this reason, we need to recognize the importance of preserving indigenous languages, perhaps by starting within our own country.

When Europeans first settled in what is now called United States, more than 300 different languages were spoken the native peoples. Today, about a half of those languages still remain, but many are only spoken by a small number of elderly people and thus are in high risk of disappearing permanently.

For example, Oklahoma is the most language-diverse area in America with the languages spoken there largely belonging to the numerous tribes that had settled in the state back in the 1800s. The endangered languages in Oklahoma include Caddo, Yuchi, Kansa, Shawnee, and Muskogee. Think about the Native American’s tribes and the languages that are gradually declining— how would you feel if you were in the same boat as them? How can we truly promote world peace and understanding without showing empathy and companionship for these identities?

There are many projects available to help restore the Native American languages along with other indigenous languages. The Native Language of the Americas is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving endangered American Indian languages by providing a great list of things that we can do to help and a place where we can send support and donations.

The Administration for Native Americans is a program that serves all Native Americans by giving generous funds and grants to support the Native American language-based projects and organizations. Many Facebook pages such as the Endangered Language Fund have been created to keep people updated on the most current projects along with opportunities to help and get involved.

Fun and innovative language challenges such as the Indigenous Language Challenge, where people post videos of themselves speaking their native language and tag others to join them, allow people to use their own tongues to raise awareness and to support their own preservation.

For many of the Native American tribes, the retention of the language is a way to preserve an identity that has been erased in many parts of the historical narrative of the United States…. and in many ways, we could also say this about the Fuzhounese and China. It is crucial that we work together as a team to protect and rebuild native languages. Now is the time to speak up and make a difference!


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My name is YouMe Lin and I am a 19 year old Chinese American born in New York City. During my spare time, I enjoy blogging, traveling, and playing with music. Growing up speaking four languages has allowed me to connect with a diverse group of friends from different parts of the world.


 

 

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