Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Preserving Language

In my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins, my french teacher gave us an oral examination on a well-known piece of literature. I performed fine. I understood her questions and I answered them. But my grammar and diction were flawed to her native ear. She suggested I let my french minor go. In her estimation, I would never speak well enough to do anything with it. And I was crushed.

It was a tide shift. Until that moment I was slowly adding knowledge of the language and grammar every day and every year that I studied it. That was the moment when I let it go and the words and structure of that beautiful language began to seep out. I can still do alright, but I now struggle and not just with the subjunctive tense.

So it was with great interest that I read THIS ARTICLE about languages that are no longer spoken.

Today, on St. Patrick's Day, Irish is one that is in the forefront of most people's mind. Spoken by less that 30,000 people, this language could be lost in one or two more generations.

This is a subject growing increasingly closer to my heart, not just because I love languages, but because I worry that I will not do enough to ensure that my children will be fluent in their father's language. Luo is less in danger than Irish - over 3 million people still speak it. It is still the primary first language of that ethnic group.

But, I wonder, does Barack Obama speak Luo? Probably not, or not much. He is more likely to speak Hawaiian - another endangered language - spoken by only 0.1% of the population of the Hawaiian islands.

The idea of linguistic and cultural preservation is one that is important to me. People need to know where they come from. The need to be able to communicate with their relatives. I know I am not a good example: I did not pay attention when our grandfather tried to teach us Hebrew and German. I think we had only a few lessons before he realized we might be hopeless - and instead helped us learn about a myriad of different cultures - and instilled in all of us the love of learning.

So with all this in mind, I will go forth to try again to learn Swahili and Luo. Ero kamano to all my teachers. I know I am a lazy student - if only you could have commiserated with my grandfather - he would have told you that I am more interested in swimming, reading, and eating lovely treats than I am in working hard on something that can be put off. Luckily, I now understand that sometimes you put things off so long that you miss an opportunity. Like how wonderful it would be to speak with your grandfather in his native tongue - to learn his accent instead of ridiculing it. That would have been so nice for him.

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