Tom Belt, a native of Oklahoma, didn’t encounter the English language until he …
Tom Belt, a native of Oklahoma, didn’t encounter the English language until he began kindergarten. In his home, conversations took place in Cherokee. Belt grew up riding horses, and after college bounced around the country doing the rodeo circuit.
Eventually, he wound up in North Carolina in pursuit of a woman he met at school 20 years earlier. “All those years ago, she said the thing that attracted her to me was that I was the youngest Cherokee she’d ever met who could speak Cherokee,” he says. “I bought a roundtrip ticket to visit her, but I never used the other end of the ticket.”
The couple married. Yet his wife — also Cherokee — did not speak the language. He soon realized that he was a minority among his own people. At that time, just 400 or so Cherokee speakers were left in the Eastern Band, the tribe located in the Cherokee’s historic homeland and the one that his wife belongs to. Children were no longer learning the language either. “I began to realize the urgency of the situation,” Belt says. So he decided to do something about it.
Cherokee is far from the only minority language threatened with demise. Over the past century alone, around 400 languages — about one every three months — have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,800 languages will be gone by the end of this century. Today, the top ten languages in the world claim around half of the world’s population. Can language diversity be preserved, or are we on a path to becoming a monolingual species?
Since there are so many imperilled languages, it’s impossible to label just one as the rarest or most endangered, but at least 100 around the world have only a handful of speakers — from Ainu in Japan to Yagan in Chile. It can be difficult to ﬁ nd these people too. There are some famous cases — Marie Smith Jones passed away in Alaska in 2008, taking the Eyak language with her — but usually they are older individuals (often in failing health) who don’t advertise their language skills. “The smaller the number of speakers, the harder it is to get an accurate headcount,” says David Harrison, chair of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College, and co-founder of the non-proﬁt Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.
Languages usually reach the point of crisis after being displaced by a socially, politically and economically dominant one, as linguists put it. Sometimes, especially in immigrant communities, parents do not decide to teach their children their heritage language, perceiving it as a potential hindrance to their success in life.
There are also a few examples of languages being revived even after actually going extinct. By the 1960s, the last ﬂuent Miami language speakers living in the American Midwest passed away. Thanks largely to the efforts of one interested member of the Miami Nation tribe, however, the language is now taught at Miami University in Ohio. To an extent, technology can help these efforts. Many speakers are using technology to do really interesting things that were not imaginable a generation back. For example, a version of Windows 8 is available in Cherokee, and a Cherokee app allows speakers to text in the language’s 85 letters. A multitude of sites devoted to single languages or languages of a speciﬁ c region unite speakers and provide multimedia teaching tools, too.
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What does the phrase “the urgency of the situation” mean?
- People of the tribe left their native land.
- People of the tribe did not speak their language.
- People of the tribe had arguments.
- People of the tribe did not have teachers for their children.
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