Expand AU Menu

College News

  • Print

Preserving Languages and Saving Cultures

Kate Lindsey on a research trip to Saratov, Russia.

Kate Lindsey, CAS/BA ’11, was spending time in a small village in the mountains of northern Thailand when she had an astonishing revelation. “It was the first time I had really been exposed to people who didn’t love the language that they spoke or felt like they had to learn a different language, that they couldn’t speak the one they had,” she says.

Like many students who come to American University, Lindsey is a doer—a person who wants to contribute to the world around her. She wasn’t sure her French major and Arabic and Russian minors would lead her to the kind of work she really wanted to do, though. “I always just thought my studies were so far away from actually helping people,” says the recent graduate. Fortunately for her, all that changed when she discovered endangered language research.

“When I started doing endangered language research, I realized that this kind of research could actually help peoples’ lives and their communities and empower them to realize that their language and their traditions and culture are important. That’s why I really got into it,” she explained.

Lindsey first encountered endangered languages when she was 15 while studying with a community service team in Thailand. Lindsey has a knack for learning languages and picked up some Thai before her trip. She was the only person on her team to speak the language while in the country. “I was the only one that studied Thai in our little community service group, so I was translating when we were in Bangkok and in the large cities,” she says.

Lindsey left the large cities to spend some time in a small village in the mountains of northern Thailand, where the people didn’t speak Thai. Instead, they spoke a language called Akha.

“I really liked learning languages…so, I spent a lot of the time with the people learning their language. The people in the village were really surprised that I would even bother learning their language. They kept saying that Akha was useless and worthless, and that if you wanted a good life then you needed to learn Thai; if you wanted a great life you would learn English,” she says.

The experience made such an impression on Lindsey that it opened her eyes to endangered languages in her own backyard in northern California.

“When I got back to the States I realized that there were all these Native American tribes around where I lived. The people there had the same linguistic situation going on as the Akhai villagers. They felt they had to speak English, or they were forced to speak English, and their languages were dying; no one was speaking them. I hadn’t really noticed that before,” she says.

This realization motivated Lindsey to become active in her community and work to empower Native Americans in the use of their endangered languages. She will continue her work with her neighbors as she teams up with University of California - Berkeley to help Native American tribes preserve their language. She says there are some tribes in California where only 20-30 people are left who speak the tribe’s language.

Lindsey clarifies, though, that the number of speakers of a language doesn’t determine whether or not it is dying. While the tribes she’ll be working with are facing language extinction, Lindsey says that if a population continues to pass on its language, it may survive.

“It depends a lot on how people view the language,” she says. “If a language is viewed negatively, if people think that their language is not worth anything, and that they’re backwards for holding on to their language or that they are going against globalization, or if it’s not suitable for writing or religion, then people won’t transmit their language to their children.”

She continues that a language with one million speakers might be cut down to 500,000 speakers in as short a span as 25 years if something negative occurs in the speakers’ culture that prevents the population from passing the language on to its children. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project estimates that languages die at a rate of one every two weeks.

However, if a population of only 1,000 people respects their language and transmits it 100 percent to their children so that everyone learns it, then that language may not be at risk of becoming endangered.

Languages that die or are on the brink of death take a certain piece of culture, history, and science with them that the world may never see again. Lindsey explains that along with the traditions and cultures that languages contain, there are other aspects that we might not be aware of. Languages can teach us about the capability of our brains, for instance.

“In some languages, there is no word for right or left, so speakers have to know at all times where North, West, East, and South are. They never say ‘My left hand;’ it’s either my East hand or my West hand, depending on which way they’re facing,” she says. 

Lindsey is currently doing her best to make sure the world doesn’t lose more of the hidden value that languages can possess. She recently attended the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder where she helped preserve the Idi language, spoken by a small population in southern Papua New Guinea. She and her field methods class, taught by renowned linguist Nicholas Evans, created a dictionary, grammar dictionary and orthography to help the language prosper in writing, schooling, and in texts.

“It feels great, but I was nervous all the time because I felt like the fate of this language was in my hands. If I wrote down a word wrong, would everyone be learning it that way forever?” she says.

Nervous or not, the feeling of contributing to the world is what keeps her going. Even when linguists estimate that 50 percent of languages will die by 2100, it’s the reward of seeing the change she can make. She renewed her motivation to continue working with Wasang, the native Idi speaker she helped this past summer.

“I feel that the work that I did in the class is doing something for the world. It’s a good feeling. I feel very accomplished every day, very productive,” she says.

To learn more about Lindsey, or to read her award winning thesis, “What Disappears Before a Language Dies? The Fatal Loss of Prestige in the Picard, Tamazight, and Chuvash Languages,” please visit her website.