News Story

Saving Endangered Languages

February 6, 2014—Common languages like English, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish have the potential to connect billions of people. But those connections come at a price—as less common languages are dying out.

Assistant Professor of Linguistics Mark Sicoli became interested in Zapotec-Chatino languages while traveling in the region of Oaxaca, Mexico. “I found their Spanish fascinating—very melodic and very rhythmic,” Sicoli said. “And a lot of that structure is carried over from the indigenous languages spoken there,” he continued. Those indigenous languages are Zapotec-Chatino, a diverse language family that can be traced back 2,500 years. There are roughly 20 to 25 languages under Zapotec, which Sicoli likens to the Romance language family.

In 2007, Sicoli began his field research with nine native speakers, who conducted interviews in 103 towns throughout Oaxaca. Within one year, his project had trained 22 interviewers. Working with the community, Sicoli says, is essential in his fieldwork. “[We] trained native speakers and gave them some sense of capacity building to do linguistics work, and many have taken it upon themselves to learn more,” he said. Many of the native speakers Sicoli worked with have become activists who raise awareness about endangered languages, while others have gone on to study linguistics at university.

“That’s the thing that is going to keep [a] language alive. To have an effect, [projects] need to be really involved with the community and driven by the community,” he continued.

Sicoli and his team recorded 2,500 utterances from each town, creating the largest collection of data for an indigenous language in Mesoamerica. The breadth of the survey showed Sicoli the status of Zapotec-Chatino in Oaxaca. “Fifty percent of the population centers were moribund,” he said. Moribund refers to the state where children are no longer learning the language. The data also revealed how quickly things were changing. “We found five extinct varieties where the [recent government] census said there were speakers and one town with [Zapotec] speakers where the census reported none,” he explained.

Knowing the number of Zapotec-Chatino speakers allows researchers like Sicoli to do targeted documentation—“to go back to some of the towns that we found to be very moribund or very threatened but which are important because of the structures of the language,” he said. The survey is also a tool to raise awareness about endangered languages. “Sometimes the way language shift happens is that no one knows what’s going on.”

As part of the Documenting Endangered Languages Program, Sicoli is now working to turn the data he collected on Zapotec-Chatino languages into a free and accessible archive. Not only will researchers have access to the data for linguistic study, but communities in Oaxaca will be able to use the information in order to revitalize indigenous languages.

Sicoli hopes to create a print version of the archive—for communities without Internet access—and educational materials for those who want to teach these languages. “We have a graduate student here who is working on second language acquisition and Zapotec,” he said. These materials could help local communities teach Zapotec to children and adolescents who grew up speaking only Spanish.

Sicoli’s research is part of the resurgence of studying less common languages. Up until the 1990s, scholars primarily focused on the most common languages and what was universal about them. “For a while, linguists were discouraged from doing fieldwork at the expense of all of the languages that were going extinct at the time,” he explained. There has been a shift in the field, Sicoli says, from understanding what is universal across languages to understand what is different.

“Languages are knowledge systems in part; we learn about different types of knowledge that humans have and the way that it’s organized through languages,” he said. How humans express knowledge becomes a window into how we process and organize information. “It turns out that people think about space in different ways—that’s not without limits—but we only learned that by doing comparative studies [of languages].”

Not only do people think about space differently, they think about time and sound different as well. English speakers typically characterize sounds in terms of high and low. “I’ve done work in Zapotec that shows that metaphor isn’t active, but a thick/thin metaphor [is],” Sicoli said. “It’s another nature-based metaphor. Thicker strings produce lower sounds, and thinner objects—when you hit them—produce higher sounds.”

We still know little about these variations in cognition, Sicoli says. But researchers won’t be able to gain more insights without first preserving and documenting endangered languages. “There is a push that we won’t be able to understand human language and what it is for humanity without understanding its diversity.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Learn more about the Documenting Endangered Languages Program, a joint venture between the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Listen to excerpts from Assistant Professor Mark Sicoli’s field research. Native speakers say the number 20 in twenty different varieties of Zapotec and Chatino.