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← How to save a language from extinction

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Showing Revision 5 created 11/18/2019 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Languages don't just die naturally.
  2. People abandon mother tongues,
    because they're forced to.
  3. Often, the pressure is political.
  4. In 1892,

  5. the US Army general Richard Henry Pratt
  6. argued that killing indigenous cultures
  7. was the only alternative
    to killing indigenous people.
  8. "Kill the Indian," he said,
    "but save the man."
  9. And until 1978,
    the government did just that,
  10. removing indigenous children
    from their families
  11. and forcing them into boarding schools
    where they were given English names
  12. and punished for speaking their languages.
  13. Assimilation was a compliment to genocide.
  14. Seven thousand languages are alive today,

  15. but few are recognized
    by their own governments
  16. or supported online.
  17. So for people from the vast
    majority of cultures,
  18. globalization remains
    profoundly alienating.
  19. It means giving up your language
    for someone else's.
  20. And if nothing changes,
  21. as many as 3,000 languages
    could disappear in 80 years.
  22. But things are changing.

  23. Around the world,
  24. people are reviving ancestral languages
  25. and rebuilding their cultures.
  26. As far as we know,
  27. language reclamation began in the 1800s
    when, at a time of rising antisemitism,
  28. Jewish communities looked
    to their ancestral language, Hebrew,
  29. as a means of cultural revival.
  30. And though it had been dormant
    for over 1,000 years,
  31. it was well preserved in books
    of Jewish religion and philosophy.
  32. So Jewish activists studied
    and taught it to their children,
  33. raising the first native speakers
    in nearly 100 generations.
  34. Today, it's the mother tongue
    of five million Jews.
  35. And at least for me,
  36. an assimilated English-speaking member
    of the Jewish diaspora,
  37. a pillar of cultural sovereignty.
  38. Two thousand years later,
  39. we're still here.
  40. Now, until recently,

  41. Hebrew's reawakening was an anomaly.
  42. Few languages are
    as well preserved as ours was,
  43. and the creation of Israel,
  44. the first Jewish state
    in over 1,000 years,
  45. provided a space for Hebrew's daily use.
  46. In other words, most cultures
    just weren't given a chance.
  47. (Video) Good evening, I'm Elizabeth

  48. and I live in Cornwall.
  49. That was Cornish,

  50. the ancestral language of Cornwall,
  51. which today is technically
    a county in southern England.
  52. In the 1900s, Cornish activists
    fought for their culture.
  53. The language had been dormant
    for over 100 years,
  54. but they used old books and plays
    to teach it to their children.
  55. However, this new generation
    of Cornish speakers
  56. was scattered across Cornwall
  57. and unable to use the language freely.
  58. By the 1990s, Cornish had reawakened,
  59. but it wasn't thriving.
  60. Then, in the early 2000s,
    Cornish speakers found one another online
  61. and leveraged digital spaces
    to speak on a daily basis.
  62. From there, they organized
    weekly or monthly events
  63. where they could gather
    and speak in public.
  64. Today, some schools teach Cornish.

  65. There are Cornish language signs,
  66. ice-cream commercials,
  67. Wikipedia, and even memes.
  68. (Laughter)

  69. (Laughter)

  70. And with their language once again intact,

  71. the people of Cornwall
    have secured recognition
  72. as a Celtic nation alongside
    Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
  73. They stared down centuries
    of forced assimilation
  74. and said, "We're not a county in England.
  75. We're a people in our own right.
  76. And we're still here."
  77. And they're not the only ones.

  78. The Tunica-Biloxi tribe of Louisiana
    is reviving their ancestral language.
  79. (Video) My name is Teyanna.

  80. My friends, they call me "Quiet Storm."
  81. It started in the 1980s,

  82. when Donna Pierite and her family
  83. started taking trips
    to Baton Rouge and New Orleans
  84. to photocopy old dictionaries
    stored away in university archives.
  85. The goal was to study Tunica
  86. and teach it to the children
    and share it with the community.
  87. Today, they're leading
    a Tunica renaissance.
  88. Since 2014, there are nearly 100 speakers
    in language immersion classes,
  89. and according to a 2017 census,
  90. 32 new fluent speakers,
  91. some of whom,
    like Donna's daughter Elisabeth,
  92. are teaching Tunica to their children.
  93. These new speakers are creating content,
  94. Facebook videos and also memes.
  95. (Laughter)

  96. (Laughter)

  97. (Laughter)

  98. And the more they publish,

  99. the more they inspire other
    Tunica people to get involved.
  100. Recently, a tribal member living in Texas
    wrote Elisabeth on Facebook,
  101. asking how to say "bless these lands."
  102. It was for a yard sign,
  103. so she could show her neighbors
    that her culture is alive
  104. and thriving today.
  105. Now, Hebrew, Cornish and Tunica

  106. are just three examples from a groundswell
    of language activism on every continent.
  107. And whether they're Jèrriais speakers
    from the Channel Isles,
  108. or Kenyan sign language
    speakers from Nairobi,
  109. all communities working
    to preserve or reclaim a language
  110. have one thing in common: media,
  111. so their language
    can be shared and taught.
  112. And as the internet grows,
  113. expanding media access and creation,
  114. preserving and reclaiming
    ancestral languages
  115. is now more possible than ever.
  116. So what are your ancestral languages?

  117. Mine are Hebrew, Yiddish,
    Hungarian and Scottish Gaelic,
  118. even though I was raised in English.
  119. And luckily for me, each of these
    languages is available online.
  120. Hebrew in particular --
    it came installed on my iPhone,
  121. it's supported by Google Translate,
  122. it even has autocorrect.
  123. And while your language
    may not be as widely supported,
  124. I encourage you to investigate,
  125. because chances are, someone, somewhere,
    has started getting it online.
  126. Reclaiming your language
    and embracing your culture

  127. is a powerful way to be yourself
    in the age of globalization,
  128. because as I recently learned
    to say in Hebrew,
  129. "'nḥnw 'dyyn k'n" --
  130. we're still here.
  131. Thank you.

  132. (Applause)