Monday, June 18, 2012

Language says what the heart means

I love stories of cultural preservation. They prove that we human beings still recognize our connection to the past and care enough about our heritage to take a stand to keep it alive. Various Native American tribes, including several in California, have recently begun using casino revenues to fund projects to preserve native languages.

Though I am usually inspired by such stories, feeling a righteous and impassioned sense of duty, this time, while reading about these endeavors, I just felt my throat catch. I wonder if it is too little, too late, a noble exercise in futility. It's not the fault of these tribes -- they are the victims here, retreating and giving ground against centuries-long cultural assaults that have fragmented their cultures and worn away their traditions, sometimes with violence, and other times through the abrasion of misguided social policy and the onslaught of economic change. Yet even as I wish them the best, I am concerned whether such efforts will be enough. A language has to be used in everyday life to be "living." The tribes have such small pockets of continuing speakers; will children newly educated in these tongues truly use them?

Chinese-speakers have a whole country (three of them, actually -- China, Taiwan, Singapore -- plus the territory of Hong Kong) to back them up. We have a homeland and linguistic proving ground (plus the incentive of communicating with 1 billion consumers and listening to catchy Mandarin pop music), yet I'm pretty sure most of us ABCs couldn't keep the Chinese language "alive" on our own. Aside from being a tool to communicate with our elders, a true vernacular must be the language for expressing ourselves -- the language of the heart. Sadly, I don't think Chinese represents that for most of us.

Good luck to these tribes. I feel for them, and I support their efforts, but the success of this effort is an open question. Yes, the example of Catalan gives me hope for a happy tale that has not yet drawn to an end. However, the story of so many other extinct languages -- mirrored in some ways by our own experiences with Mandarin and Cantonese in America -- as well as the inexorable, assimilative power of English (beloved tongue of mine), would seem to point elsewhere.

"With Casino Revenues, Tribes Push to Preserve Languages, and Cultures" (The New York Times)

"Chukchansi tribe gives Fresno State $1 million to preserve language" (Fresno Bee)

Heroes, these scholars of language: the Fresno State Linguistics Department. "Language is an essential part of our life. Nothing characterizes humanity more than the ability to use language."

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