In This Episode
Welcome to Part 2 of our Language Lifecycle series: what causes languages to become endangered, or even die? We’ll discuss the role of colonization on language, and the efforts some communities are taking to revive their dying ways of speaking.
Rebecca Nagle: Yeah. I can tell a story. So [speaks Cherokee] my friend [?] I was driving to his house to pick him up, and I was driving through this game refuge. And I hit a bear with my car [laughs] like a little brown bear. I think the bear was okay. It ran off. It wasn’t like a really heavy hit, but it was just kind of a wild story. Maybe a couple of months later at this dinner, [?] he said [?] come here, I’ve got a new Cherokee name for you. And I was like, okay, what is it? You know, I was like, oh my god. All right. I’m like, you know, what did I do to earn this? I’m so excited. And he goes, [?] which means bear killer [laughs] and killer is like a really like we have like path killer, white killer, man killer, four killer, six killer. It’s like a very common Cherokee name. And so, my nickname became [?]. Hi my name is [?] or Rebecca Nagle, and I’m a citizen of Cherokee Nation and I am learning the Cherokee language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Rebecca is an activist, writer and host of the award-winning podcast, This Land, from Crooked Media. She is based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma which is the capital of both Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Thanks to a grant she received, Rebecca started learning the Cherokee language a few years ago, and, as you can see with the nickname her friend gave her, one of her favorite parts about Cherokee is—
Rebecca Nagle: It’s a hilarious language. [laughs] There’s like a lot of ways, um, to, to make jokes and they are funnier. They’re so much funnier in Cherokee.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: But not a lot of people would know this because not a lot of people, including Cherokee natives, know the language. It’s one of the many Indigenous languages that are endangered all over the globe.
Rebecca Nagle: English is so dominant, that it makes it a really, it makes it a choice to speak Cherokee versus a default for a lot of people.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: But in the case of Cherokee, this isn’t a change that happened naturally. It’s a result of the US government’s policies to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into white mainstream culture, going back centuries.
Rebecca Nagle: Every chapter of colonization and genocide has disrupted our culture and our language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Cherokee is technically considered moribund, a linguistic term for when a language is endangered, but not extinct. But, a lot of other Indigenous languages around the world have already been lost. According to The Language Conservancy, an organization that works with endangered languages in North America, over 200 Native languages in the United States have gone extinct during the last 400 years. For example, The Chilean language Yahgan, spoken in Tierra Del Fuego. It was a language isolate, which meant it wasn’t seemingly related to any other language. Pretty special, right? It died in 2022 alongside the death of its last speaker, Christina Calderon. And it’s not just Indigenous languages that have been lost. It’s happened to lots of different languages in lots of different places. Even languages of major empires die, such as Sanskrit, Old Persian, Latin. These were once super dominant, but now have virtually no remaining native speakers. So, how do languages die? And how are Indigenous communities fighting to keep their ways of speaking alive? From Crooked Media and Duolingo, I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. This is part two of our language life cycle series. A Language Well Lived. [music break]
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: Languages don’t die like individual animals die. Languages die like species die.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Dr. Salikoko Mufwene. He’s a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago. He studies how humans first started speaking languages, and why those languages have changed over time. Salikoko also studies the ways colonization throughout history has impacted Indigenous languages.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: Languages don’t have lives that are independent of the people that use them. And so a language dies gradually as opportunities for using it decrease.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Languages die in lots of ways, but almost always, a big factor is competition. For example, let’s say a new language is introduced to a community. Now the community has to choose between when and where to speak this new language, versus their native language.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: If they have to use somebody else’s language that is not theirs, that language is taking more and more room in the stead of their own heritage language. And before you know it, and often by hindsight, you realize that you don’t speak your heritage language anymore.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: If this process of deterioration happens among more and more people, that’s when you start to see the slow disappearance of the community’s heritage language. And that’s a problem, because one of the most important parts about maintaining a language is, duh, using it. And I’m not just saying that to be obvious. Neurologically, our brains depend on us using a language in order to remember it.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: When people speak of iron tools that when you don’t use them, they rust, then they rust and you lose interest in them. [laughs] So with regard to our knowledge of those languages, that is what happens because you use them less and less. Your competence in the language becomes rusty.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Language attrition is the loss or degeneration of one’s ability to speak and understand a particular language. And it can happen to anyone at any age. But children are especially vulnerable to language attrition. For example, in 2004, researchers began monitoring a group of South Korean adoptees who moved to France at the age of 10. After years of not hearing or using their heritage language regularly, by the time they were in their 30’s they couldn’t even recognize Korean when it was spoken to them. That’s 10 years of language learning gone. Some studies have shown that this loss of language can happen within 3-5 years. Historically, this has been a huge issue for Native children in America, especially those who attended local public schools where English reigned supreme.
Rebecca Nagle: We have speakers who have stories of, you know, being hit or being punished for speaking their language and even, you know, people who are in their forties who knew Cherokee before they went to school, but then when they went to school, we’re told that they needed to stop speaking it and so they lost the language as kids.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And it’s not just a loss that children experience. Adults can gradually lose competency and fluency in their first language too, depending on when they stopped using it. Repeat that process hundreds, thousands, millions of times until you’re down to your last speaker. When that last speaker dies, or forgets, that language is extinct. Salikoko gave us a few examples of this.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: If you read the history of mankind, you realize that there are a number of languages that were spoken before that are no longer spoken today. Where English has prevailed in the British Isles. There were Celtic languages there that were spoken before the birth of English and before the spread of English. And little by little, these languages have then died.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: In the examples we’ve talked about so far, languages become threatened or die because they’re replaced. But sometimes languages die because they slowly change so much that they become something new. That’s what happened to the language of the Roman Empire, Latin.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: Latin is the language of Rome was spread to the provinces of Rome by the administrators of the Roman Empire. And in the colonies, Latin was adopted as the colonial lingua franca.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When the Romans introduced Latin to the territories they conquered, they slowly began to eliminate the local languages and dialects of those areas. But it’s not like the Latin being spoken in the provinces was exactly that of the Romans. Changes to the language were occurring throughout the empire, even while the Romans were still in charge.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: It was mostly non-native speakers using Latin among themselves, and there were several local varieties or regional varieties that emerged. Subsequently, people just thought they were speaking Latin and the people in Rome realized that Latin of the provinces was not like the Latin of Rome.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The Empire died long before the language went extinct. And even after Rome fell, Latin continued to evolve. So much so that it splintered into many different languages, like French, Spanish, Italian. But the story doesn’t end there. Power struggles over language never end. So when early varieties of what we would now consider French were being spoken instead of traditional Latin, it sparked a new power struggle. After the fall of the Roman Empire, and for centuries later, there were different kinds of French being spoken all over France. This included the Parisian variety spoken in the capital, but also versions throughout the country that some people referred to as Patois.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: Patois is a French term used for a language variety that is unwritten and not understood by the elite. I mean, the connotation is some sort of arrogance treating the other varieties as inferior, and that’s what they call Patois.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: As time went by, the already dominant Parisian language variety slowly gained more and more power.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: After the French revolution, Paris remained the Capitol of the new nation and a lot of institutions, political institutions, economic institutions, they are headquartered in Paris. The ministry of education is in Paris. So everything is spreading from Paris. Little by little, the Parisian French was going to displace the other Neo Latin varieties often identified as Patois.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: What we see with French, and with the other examples that we’ve talked about, is that the dominant language often reflects who is in power. These historical anecdotes of Latin and French are super simplified versions of how a language can change so much that it dies, but it shows you a lot about how this works. And if you haven’t already noticed, when you look at the history of big language shifts it’s almost impossible to avoid the word colonization. But, not all colonization is the same. We’ll be talking about colonization and its impact on language after the break.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Languages die out for lots of different reasons, but colonization is so often a huge part of why they disappear. And as Dr. Salikoko Mufwene tells us, different kinds of colonization have different impacts on Indigenous languages.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: We have to distinguish between settler colonies, and exploitation colonies. The settlers colonies of the America, the Americas and Australia had a cultural assimilation policy.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: By cultural assimilation policy, Salikoko means that they pressured and often forced native communities to conform to their own cultural standards. Like when the US government forced Native Americans to speak English in schools. But settler colonies are slightly different than exploitation colonies.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: The exploitation colonies of Africa and Asia didn’t have a cultural assimilation policy. Europeans came to get raw materials. They were not really interested in civilizing Africans as they had claimed. And because of the segregation that was in place between Europeans and the Indigenous people, there are very few languages in Africa that have been displaced by European languages. It’s not that languages haven’t been lost in Africa or Asia, but compared to those of Indigenous communities in settler colonies, they’ve lost a lot less. Much of this is due to the nature of exploitation colonies and how they worked. Take Senegal, for instance, people who were exploited as labor were segregated from the colonizers. And those Senegalese individuals who did interact with the colonizers were mostly serving as go-betweens who could translate between the colonizers and laborers on things like peanut farming. Though new pidgins and creoles developed, segregation meant that Indigenous people in Africa still very much used their heritage languages regularly.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: In former exploitation colonies, the majority of the population is rural and these people are still in the villages. And each village is kind of separate from the others. There is communication between villages and so forth and people in the village, they have the heritage language and they continue to speak it.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Languages like Wolof and Mandinka. But that’s not the case in settlement colonies like the Americas and Australia. In fact, the opposite has happened, countless Indigenous languages are now extinct in those places, and those few that are left are at risk of the same fate.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: In the United States, Native Americans were relegated to, um, reservations. As long as people remain on the reservations, they could speak the, the Indigenous languages, but once they move out of the reservations and come and live in what is identified as mainstream population, then they find themselves in situations where there are fewer and fewer opportunities to speak their languages.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s like what Rebecca said about the Oklahoma public schools that her Cherokee community members attended. There’s pressure from the colonizers. You want to succeed in America? Okay, well, go to our schools. Oh, you want to succeed in our school? You’d better stop speaking Cherokee and start speaking English. This is the way of the new socio-economic world, as Salikoko calls it.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: And once you do that, the other language, the heritage language is likely to die.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Even though Salikoko is able to zoom out and give us the historical background as to why Native languages are dead or dying, that doesn’t mean that it’s all in the past. Because there is no after of colonization in settler colonies like America.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: People are talking a lot about post-colonies. There are no post-colonies in the Americas and Australia. Because the rulers are not Indigenous. Period. [laughs] And the new socio-economic world order is the one that was set in place by the invaders, by the colonizers.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: We’re still living within the social rules and hierarchies of the colonizers.
Dr. Salikoko Mufwene: Native Americans are going through the same experience as immigrants. It’s like they have become foreigners in their own ancestral land.
Rebecca Nagle: You know, I think that a lot of times people think of what Indigenous people lost in the United States as land. But that’s really only framing what was taken away from us as what Europeans gained and what we lost as so much more and so tied to the land and those moments of land loss, our culture, self-governance, and our language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Rebecca Nagle and her Cherokee community, and a lot of Indigenous communities, are still attempting to build back what colonization took from them. This includes classes in culture and language, like we saw in our previous episode, with native Walpiri speakers in Australia.
Rebecca Nagle: People are doing a lot. You know, there’s community classes. There’s a consortium of speakers that get together from the three federally recognized tribes and talk about, you know, what words mean and translate. There are efforts to document the language, you know, to document older words with the elders that we have now. So there’s a lot going on. I just I think the impact of colonization is so big, it’s hard to take pieces and have it have it equal out because we’re still losing speakers every month, we lost a lot of speakers to COVID. And so to counteract the impact of colonization, it’s just really challenging, you know, not just for Cherokee Nation, but I think for all tribes in the United States.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: What they’re trying to do here is to treat an injured patient. But it’s not easy. It’s hard work, and extremely daunting, for everyone involved.
Rebecca Nagle: I spent two years learning Cherokee as my full-time job and then a couple years doing it on my own. And I can have a conversation, but I’m not a speaker. And the gap between me and a first language speaker is vast. And so from my perspective, I know enough Cherokee to know what I don’t know [laughs] and like, it would be tragic if what we preserve for future generations is the amount of Cherokee that I know that I, I would, that would be heartbreaking. And so I think that’s why, you know, starting with children and starting young and also creating more spaces, for adults to take their language learning journey further is really important.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This, along with existing programs and continuing donations, grants, and government funds, could help the language survive. In our previous episode about the birth of new languages, we discussed how quickly languages change, even in small communities. And what’s hard about the story of Cherokee is that languages that are extinct or even moribund have a very hard time reversing course. But that doesn’t mean this efforts are for naught. It has worked before. One of the most successful language revitalizations occurred when 19th century Zionists revitalized Hebrew, now the national language of Israel. Before the early 19th century, Hebrew was mostly a language used for liturgical reasons. But then a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda led an effort to revive Hebrew as a spoken language for Jews settling in British Palestine. Over the course of a hundred years, Hebrew went from zero native speakers to millions. So, death is a misnomer here, isn’t it? Because like with an extinct species there’s a chance that there’s still some DNA someplace that you can pick up and start again. Jurassic Park style. Lazarus pit style. Like with Hebrew. Many people see the potential in revitalization, perhaps none more than our next guest.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: My name is Ghil’ad Zuckermann. I am endangered languages professor at the University of Adelaide, Australia. So endangered that I’m the only such professor in Australia.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Ghil’ad is a bit of a ham. He’s also a language revivalist.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: I look at the world and ask myself, are there people out there who used to have a language? And this language was subject to linguicide, which is language killing. If I find such a tribe or such a group of people, I go there and I ask, excuse me, are you interested in reclaiming your sleeping beauty?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A sleeping beauty like the lost language of the Indigenous Aboriginal community called Barngarla in South Australia. Not to be confused with Bangla the Bengali language. Ghil’ad is best known for his success in reviving Barngala.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: If I find a group of people who tells me, just as the Barngala people told me ten years ago, we’ve been waiting for you for 50 years, which is when the Barngala language fell asleep. Then I say, oh wow, there is a desire, a strong desire.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When Ghil’ad first met members of the community in 2011, their last native speaker had died in 1964. So where does one begin when bringing a language back from the dead?
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: The first thing you need to do is to find resources. What are resources? You need a dictionary, and you need a grammar.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This can be difficult when working with Indigenous or remote languages, but in the case of Barngarla, Ghil’ad had a head start.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: A dictionary written in 1844 by a German Lutheran missionary.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So, he had his dictionary. Words written on the page, with their meanings. But that doesn’t tell Ghil’ad anything about the way those words sound when spoken. So one of the other tools he uses when trying to bring a language back from the dead is tapes. Videos. Something that shows the language in action.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: If you have recordings, it’s wonderful. If you have video clips, it’s even more wonderful because then you can also see the gestures that are part of the language. One of the most stupid sentences I’ve heard in linguistics, I don’t want to say by whom, but by a famous linguist, was that in order to have a language, you only need a pencil and a paper. Palpable poppycock. You need much more than that because a language is gestaltic, it’s holistic. It’s everything together, for example, you sometimes have fillers, you know, like in English. Ummm, um, um um um. Fillers are very, very important because they tell you shut your mouth. Don’t speak while I am thinking. This is very, very important. This is part of language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Unfortunately in the case of Barngarla, Ghil’ad was missing this piece of the puzzle. No recordings or videos existed of the language. To make up for this, he was able to estimate what Barngarla sounded like from looking at a related language called Adnyamathanha that still had some native speakers. So he had the dictionary, the grammar, and help from the community, and that was enough for him to get started. But what happens when you try to apply a dictionary from 1844 to modern day life? You’re going to run into a few hiccups.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: Now, if you want a word for computer, obviously in 1844, when Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, the Lutheran Christian missionary from Bresson, when he wrote this dictionary, there were no computers, but you can make one. Okay. So we made up a word for computer, [speaks Barngarla] means head [speaks Barngarla] means egg. So [speaks Barngarla] means head egg or the egg inside the head, which refers to the brain. [speaks Barngarla] is surprise lightning and [speaks Barngarla] or as we call it [speaks Barngarla] is head egg lightening or electric brain.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Language reclamation is a long process. Efforts to revitalize Barngarla are still continuing, but the language is very much back, partly because Ghil’ad promotes a multipronged approach when reclaiming a sleeping beauty. The language is revived through teaching, through changing the landscape putting up signs in the native language. And all this costs money.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: I used to pay for it for my own wallet until my wife told me that she does not agree anymore. So I had to apply for funding, you know, from the government.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: From Ghil’ad’s perspective and for the sake of his wallet this is where the money should have been coming from all along.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: Compensation from the Australian Government is a better, a better way and a fairer way to deal with Aboriginal language revival and thus to right the wrongs of the past. These languages were subject to linguicide. We have the moral obligation to reclaim them.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Ghil’ad knows that reclaiming language is more than just words and grammar. It’s also about bringing aspects of lost culture back to life. He told me an interesting story that illustrates this.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: In Barngarla, if you are my sister’s daughter, I must say [speaks Barngarla]. But if you are my brother’s daughter, I must say [speaks Barngarla]. So [speaks Barngarla].
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When Barngarla was lost, and the community was forced to speak a different language, an English word like niece could never quite replace the version their culture used.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: In Barngarla, whether we are related to each other through a woman or through a man makes a very important kinship relationship between us. The moment the language is lost, this distinction, how can it survive? When you kill alanguage, you kill the autonomy, the spirituality, the heritage, the culture, in the sense that the language, whether you want it or not encodes cultural characteristics that are lost otherwise.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Colonialism doesn’t just displace, it disrupts whole ways of being. Reviving a language often sounds like a matter of getting people to use particular words and grammar again, but for a language that has been lost, an entire culture, an entire identity and way of being was probably also lost. These episodes on language birth and death left me with so many complicated feelings. Discovering new languages like Light Walpiri and Nicaraguan Sign Language, I felt so much optimism. You can see the creativity and ingenuity that people, especially young people, use to invent new ways of speaking. New languages that have their own distinctions and quirks and reveal something about the culture of the people speaking it. But what about linguicide? The intentional eradication of a language, like Native Americans and other Indigenous populations experienced. Compared to the loss of Latin, this is a different kind of grief. Unnatural and more acute. More systematic. Like Ghil’ad said, we have a moral obligation towards reviving these languages, but he also brought up another interesting point.
Ghil’ad Zuckermann: The world will be more beautiful with diversity, sometimes new diversities resulting from the reclamation of these languages.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Even though it’s a long road to the recovery and reclamation of her heritage language, Rebecca is optimistic.
Rebecca Nagle: I mean, our speakers, you know, I think for me, it’s not just their knowledge of the language and that they grew up speaking it, but that they went through hell to do that. It wasn’t easy. And, you know, a lot of our speakers will say, when we lose our language we will lose what it means to be Cherokee. And I think so yeah, I think it’s just really important that we, respect not only their knowledge but the work and the sacrifices that they’ve made so that we have a language today to revitalize, to teach and to pass on.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Unlike Yahgan, the native Cherokee language isn’t dead. If you’d like to learn more on how to support the language, we’ve put some links and information in the show notes. [music break] Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media. I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Mary Knopf and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our associate producer and fact checker is Brian Semel. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.