“Each language is shining a little torch somewhere. These are treasures for the whole of humankind.” Nicholas Evans (Language Matters, PBS)
I’d like to start this post with a shout out to language researchers Robyn Perry (University of California, Berkeley) and Steven Bird (University of Melbourne, Australia) for the incredible work they are doing through the Aikuma Project to preserve dying languages. Robyn has been a featured guest blogger on the TOR Talks blog (a project I co-direct with my school district colleague Kathleen Watt) and has also joined us,with Steven, for a Google Hangout. So Kathleen and I were thrilled when Robyn invited us to come to Oakland (California) for the Sunday, December 13, Treasure Language Storytelling Event.
I was born in Oakland and grew up in Orinda, part of what is known as the “East Bay.” So I was surprised to learn about one of California’s “hidden histories” (not included in history textbooks): The storytelling event was taking place in an area once inhabited by the Chochenyo (a new word for my spellchecker), a division of the Ohlone tribe of Northern California and the first inhabitants of the East Bay. The Chochenyo language died about 70 years ago. But thanks to the efforts of Vince Medina and Louis Trevino, Chochenyo is re-emerging as a spoken language. Vince opened the event by welcoming us in Chochenyo.
Next on the agenda was Leiz (Marc) Yauz-Cing and Lai Saephan, who represented Sacramento’s Iu Mien community. Two years ago, Lai spent 6 months studying the Mien language with Marc, who taught him not only the spoken language, but also how to read and write in Mien. Together, Lai and Marc told a Iu Mien story in two voices. Fortunately, their telling of “Hieh Mienh Gouv” (Wild Mien Story) was recorded.
Before Marc and Lai started their story, the wonderful Koy Saephan, Lai’s big sister (sitting next to us in the audience), shared that becoming fluent in his native language had changed Lai’s life. Their family had fled Laos to Thailand after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War. When they were granted permission to come to the United States, Lai was only 9 months old. Like many refugee and immigrant children, his older siblings took care of him while his parents held multiple jobs. With the siblings naturally wanting to fit into American culture, they spoke English with each other. Therefore, as a child and into his adult years, Lai could not fully communicate with his Mien-speaking parents. Six months of studying Mien changed that – and his life (see more below).
The evening’s last story in two voices was a proverb told in Tigrigna, an endangered language from the African nation of Eritrea: Everything for My Own Kind, or, Our Donkey Is for Our Hyenas.
The closing activity, the Language Champions Panel, was equally powerful. Vince Medina and Lai Saephan were joined by Tigisti Weldeab, an immigrant from Eritrea. As soon as the video is posted, I’ll add it to this post. I still have a lump in my throat from Lai sharing that before he learned his native language, he used to stutter. No more.
Tigisiti shared what it was like arriving in Seattle as a 12 year old, wanting nothing more than to fit in, which meant speaking Tigrigna as little as possible. It was not until she started college and saw that her younger brother was losing the Tigrigna language that she realized the importance of keeping and promoting her native language.
It will be a long time to come before I forget these “treasure language” stories. Each story is now part of our shared community history. And each story provides a window into the challenges of losing one’s native language.
I’ve already marked my calendar for the February 21 Treasure Language Event, which coincides with International Mother Tongue Day and will therefore focus on women storytellers. I look forward to attending the event, both as a learner and as an educator. Given the diverse populations in California schools, with more than 88 languages and dialects spoken in my district, the “treasure language” stories should resonate with all who work with English Learner populations.
Please help spread the word about the Aikuna Project and the February 21 Treasure Language Event. If you, or someone you know, speak a “treasure language” (endangered language) and would be willing to be interviewed, please contact Robyn Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 831-332-4208.
The living speakers of today’s disappearing languages are equipped to preserve their voices, their unique perspective on the world, and how they have managed to live sustainably in their homeland for centuries.” Steven Bird, Ph.D., Aikuma Project