Publishing Children’s Books in Endangered Writing Systems

Today we have a guest post by Tim Brookes
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I knew next to nothing about writing systems until five years ago, when more or less by accident I began carving endangered alphabets.

I’d spent my life as a nonfiction writer, with no pretensions to be a visual artist, when one Christmas I decided to make gifts for my family by carving their names in boards of Vermont maple, with the bark still on and a beautiful ripple in the grain.

These came out surprisingly well, and in casting around for something else to carve, I stumbled on Omniglot.com.

The range and variety of writing systems, many of which I’d never heard of, was amazing. Doing a little mental arithmetic, though, I realized that fully a third are in danger of dwindling out of existence.

A Chakma carving in progress
A Chakma carving in progress

I decided to carve some of the scripts to draw attention to the problem of language loss and cultural erosion. Working with a set of gouges and a paintbrush, I created an initial exhibition of thirteen carvings, which have since been exhibited in schools, libraries, and universities across the United States and Europe.

Mro alphabet

Then I expanded my range, creating several dozen pieces depicting words, phrases, sentences, or poems in vanishing alphabets from all over the world, including three scripts of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh: the Mro, Marma, and Chakma.

At the time I had no idea I would meet a member of the Marma people, a remarkable man named Maung Nyeu, and that we would collaborate on a preservation project that may become a model of how to reverse linguistic decline and the cultural collapse that goes with it.

I must confess that when I started my project, my interest in carving and exhibiting scripts was a little theoretical—after all, I couldn’t actually read or write what I was carving, and I had never seen language or script endangerment up close.

All that changed in June 2012, when I first met Maung Nyeu, in Boston.

He had stumbled on my website and seen, to his amazement, that someone not only knew about the threatened languages of the Hill Tracts but had actually carved them.

The Hill Tracts, a forested upland area in southeastern Bangladesh, are home to more than a dozen indigenous peoples who are distinct from the majority Bengali population in language, culture, and religion.

The region suffers from a wide range of difficulties, but Maung’s primary interest, he told me, is in the linked issues of education and language endangerment.

Virtually all schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts teach classes in Bangla (Bengali), the country’s official national language. However, Bangla is not a language spoken in the Hill Tracts, and as a result the children’s education is difficult, confusing, frustrating, and often futile. By second grade, 35% of students drop out, and that number jumps to 65% by fifth grade. Fewer than 2% finish their education.

Adding injury to insult, indigenous children are often abused by teachers and students from the country’s largest ethnic group, Bengalis. Maung himself suffered mistreatment.

In a single generation, Maung said, he has seen his people go from living as self-sufficient farmers on ancestral lands to being vagrant day laborers scattered across Bangladesh and into India and Myanmar.

Remarkably, Maung managed to acquire enough of an education at home from his mother to get into boarding school, then earn a degree in engineering at the University of Hawaii, then an MBA from the University of Southern California.

The children at Padamu
The children at Padamu Residential Education Center

He returned to the Hill Tracts to work with community members to build the Padamu Residential Education Center, a school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, so the children of the Hill Tracts could be educated in their own languages.

Classes began in 2008. Change was immediately apparent: Children who had seemed destined to be unskilled laborers announced their intention to be doctors and teachers. Since then, two more indigenous-language schools have been built by the local communities.

But most of the students could no longer read or write their own ethnic language.

So Maung came back to the U.S., to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to learn how to create a culturally relevant curriculum that would revive the dying languages of the Hill Tracts.

At the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sought out the advice of the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky.

“He was very kind and very attentive,” Maung said. “His recommendation was that it is possible to preserve a language, but it needs to start with the children, preferably as part of their curriculum.”

For Maung, a culturally relevant curriculum must be taught in the language the child speaks at home—the language the child is already learning and is using to find out about the world.

Also, the material being taught must be familiar. Maung remembered that at school he had to learn by heart William Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils.”

Coloring endangered alphabets at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 2013.

“I had never seen a daffodil!” he laughed. “I had no idea what it looked like. We have all sorts of plants and flowers, but I never saw a daffodil until I came to the United States!”

In order to create culturally relevant materials—and to reconnect children with their elders, and their cultural heritage—the children at Padamu collected more than 40 stories passed down in the villages of the Hill Tracts. The stories involve mountains and trees and animals the children already know—tales they may have heard from their parents and grandparents.

Maung is in the process of having them translated into Mro, Marma, and Chakma, writing them out, getting them illustrated in a visual idiom familiar to the children, and getting them published.

He faces an additional challenge. Most people in these groups still speak their traditional languages, but very few can now read and write their unique scripts.

That’s where I came in.

In June 2012 Maung and I set up a partnership to publish children’s books and other educational materials and, we hope, to help save the languages that sustain the cultures of the Hill Tracts.

I first hand-carved texts in each of the three languages, then recruited Jamie Kutner, a calligrapher in the M.F.A. program at Louisiana State University to take the handwritten forms of the scripts and turn them into works of art. Tom Sanalitro, a typographer at Anglia University in England, created specimen Mro and Marma font books, and Pooja Saxena, a typographer in India, is working to create child-friendly digital typefaces for the indigenous scripts.

Paul Ledak, a friend who owns a computer-controlled laser, burned texts into mahogany boards, and created rubber stamps so children can stamp out their letters.

Our rubber Endangered Alphabet stamps at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 2013
Our rubber Endangered Alphabet stamps at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 2013

This spring, publishing students of mine from Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont, are helping to help edit, design, and illustrate the next four books bound for Padamu, and have them printed and shipped to Bangladesh.

Reversing the decline of a language is a Herculean task, and there are no guarantees that Maung will succeed.

“In medicine,” Maung explained, “there is a window of time—maybe a few minutes to two hours, called the golden hour—where if the person can get to the ER, the chance of survival increases. For our children, their golden hour is between the ages of four or five and twelve. If we don’t get them in school during this time, we won’t get them at all.”

To support our efforts to publish children’s books in the indigenous languages of the Hill Tracts, please visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1388900883/our-golden-hour.

Attitudes of minority languages speakers to learners

A friend of mine posted an interesting question on Regional, Minority & Indigenous Languages group on Facebook:

“Has anyone ever experienced rejection or hostility from a minority group for learning their language?”

This generated a lot of discussion.

Sometimes when I speak Welsh to people in shops in Bangor they will reply in English. I don’t know why they do this, but it is a but frustrating. That is the only negative experiences I’ve had with speakers of the minority languages I speak or am learning (Welsh, Breton, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Manx).

I have only met a few young Breton speakers, and they were happy to talk to me in Breton, but I understand that many older native speakers of Breton are not willing to talk to learners, partly because they find them difficult to understand as they speak a standardised form of Breton with lots of neologisms.

If you are studying or have learnt any minority/endangered languages, have you had any problems with being accepted by their speech communities?

Wiradjuri

I came across an interesting article today about the Wiradjuri language and how it is being revived. In 1981 only three people spoke Wiradjuri and by 2009 no native speakers remained, however since 1988 the language has been revived, thanks particularly to the efforts of Stan Grant Senior, a Wiradjuri elder, who worked with a linguist called Dr John Rudder to produce a Waridjuri dictionary, which was published in 2005.

Currently 10% of the people in the towns of Parkes and Forbes in New South Wales speak Wiradjuri, and increasing numbers are learning it. It is taught in schools and colleges in these town at all levels to children and young people from all backgrounds.

Attitudes to the Waridjuri people, culture and language have been transformed not just among the children, but also among their parents and others in these towns. No longer do the Aboringial children sit at the back of classes being ignored and/or taunted by the other children, no longer are they ashamed of their language. Instead they have developed a strong sense of identity and self-respect, and are doing well in school. Non-Aboriginal children are also learning and enthusiastic about the Waridjuri language and culture.

It’s great to hear about successful language revival like this that has community support and which is helping to bring a community together.

Kumzari

The other day I came across an article about the Kumzari language and people. It reports that:

Iran’s threat of closing Straits of Hormuz, advent of TV, Internet to tiny village located on northernmost tip of Oman’s Musandam peninsula threaten survival of thousand year-old Kumzari language.

It describes Kumzari as:

the ancient Kumzari language, a mix of Indo-European languages and Arabic, remarkable in that it is the only non-Semitic language spoken on the Arabian peninsula in the past 1,400 years.

I thought it would be interesting to find out a bit more about this ‘ancient’ language – the use of the terms like ‘ancient’ and ‘thousand-year-old’ when talking about a language are common in reports of this nature. In linguistic terms it is fairly meaningless to give a language a specific age as languages don’t have specific start dates. Instead they are constantly changing and evolving and it’s very difficult to say when a particular language came into existence. What you can say is when a language was first written down, or at least when evidence of writing first appeared.

According to Wikipedia, Kumzari (کمزاری‎) is a Western Iranian language spoken by about 10,000 people in northern Oman. It is closely related to the Minabi dialect of southern Balochstan and is thought to be mutually intelligible with Luri, which is spoken in parts of Iran. So there are some other people out there who can potentially understand Kumzari, even though the artile claims that, “no one else on earth understands” it.

It is the only Iranian language spoken in the Arabian Peninsula and most of its vocabulary is Iranian, with also a lot of Arabic loanwords – so it’s possible to see how it might be described as ‘a mix of Indo-European languages and Arabic’.

I find that when reading articles like this it’s best to check their statements and claims, and not to take them at face value. The information on Wikipedia isn’t always completely reliable either, but sometimes it’s the only source. Inspite of this, it’s always interesting to find out about a language that I didn’t know about. If I can find more information, I’ll put together a page about it.

上海闲话 (Shanghainese)

According to an article I came across today, the local government in Shanghai is trying to preserve Shanghainese, the variety of Wu spoken in Shanghai. This involves recording people who speak ‘pure’ Shanghainese talking about local legends and traditions, etc. This is the third time such a project has been attempted, and they hope to find more speakers of ‘true’ Shanghainese this time – something they didn’t manage before.

Similar projects are underway in other parts of China, such as Jiangsu and Yunnan, to preserve other regionalects/languages. The plan is to compile a national database of regional languages and dialects.

This initiative marks a reversal of the government policy of the 1990s when there was a campaign to encourage people to speak Mandarin rather than Shanghainese in Shanghai. The use of Shanghainese was banned in schools and the number of Shanghainese programmes on the radio and TV fell dramatically. As a result, relatively few children speak Shanghainese and those who do don’t speak it very well, Mandarin became the main language for many people in Shanghai, and Shanghainese became stigmatised.

Recently the situation has changed somewhat with the publication of a Shanghainese dictionary, a regular and popular newpaper column, and music and stand-up comedy in Shanghainese [source].

Do you speak Shanghainese or are you studying it?

Humboldt’s parrot

Amazonian green parrot

There’s a story that in 1799 the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was exploring the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and documenting the languages and cultures of the tribes he encountered there. While spending time with one tribe of Carib people, he asked them about their neighbours and rivals, the Maypure, who he was keen to visit. He was told that the Maypure had all been killed recently by the Carib tribe he was visiting, however they did have a couple of the Maypure’s pet parrots who spoke some of their language. Von Humboldt took the parrots back to Europe and transcribed their words – the only record we have of the Maypure language, which is also written Maypure, Maipure, Maypore or Maypore’. There seems to be some doubt whether this story is true: there is no mention of the parrots in von Humboldt’s meticulous journals, but there are phonetic transcriptions of the Maypure words he heard on his travels.

In 1997 an American artist called Rachel Berwick made an art installation entitled May-por-e’ consisting of a large cage containing Amazonian plants and parrots who had been taught to speak the remnants of the Maypure language.

These two anecdotes were related by David Crystal at a fascinating talk about language death he gave yesterday at Bangor University. He used the first one to illustrate how languages can disappear completed if they are unwritten and undocumented. We only know something about Maypure because of the parrots, but in many cases once the last speaker of a language dies it is as if that language never existed.

The second story shows how the message of language death can be powerfully portrayed through the arts. Professor Crystal believes that this is the best way to make ordinary people aware of the issue. Linguists can document languages, and advise on revival and revitalisation efforts, but these are intellectual pursuits that do not engage the emotions, while art, music, drama and other artistic works appeal to the heart rather than the head. He finished his talk by performing part of a play he wrote entitled “Last Speaker”, which tackles language death, and he suggested that we tell any artistic types we know about this phenomenon and that we encourage them to create pieces related to it.

Yesterday evening I mentioned the talk to a friend and talked about it a bit. She thought that endangered languages are confined mainly to remote parts of Africa and was surprised to learn that there are endangered languages on every inhabited continent.

Language Conference

Other the past few days there was a conference at Trinity College Carmarthen entitled Reversing Language Shift: How to Re-awaken a Language Tradition, which was run by the Foundation for Endangered Languages. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to intend myself, but have found an interesting report and multilingual video from it on the BBC News.

Here’s a recording of delegates from the conferences speaking in their own languages. How many of the languages can you identify?

Did any of you attend the conference?

Cree language challenge

The inhabitants of the Norway House Cree Nation (Kinosao Sipi), a small community in northern Manitoba in Canada, have been challenged by their chief, Marcel Balfour, to become proficient in Cree (kinose’wi si’pi’hk) by the year 2020, according to an article I found the other day.

The band’s council have decided to make Cree the official language of the community, and will encourage residents to speak it as often as possible. At the moment about three quarters of the people there can understand Cree, some 50% or 60% can speak it, at least to some extent, and its mainly the elder generation who are most comfortable with the language. Balfour himself is not fluent but is determined to become so.

The article doesn’t mention how much community support the initiative has – without such support, it is unlikely to succeed.

Romansh

The other day I came across an interesting article on efforts to keep the Romansh language alive. Romansh or Romansch, which you can hear in last week’s language quiz, is a Romance language spoken mainly in the Swiss Canton of Graubuenden (Grischun/Grigione/Grissons) by about 60,000 people.

There appears to be mixed views on the language – some people are very enthusiastic about the language and do everything they can to encourage its use, others see the language as a handicap.

One significant problem is that Romansh speakers can’t agree which of the five varieties of Romansh should be taught in schools. Lia Rumantscha, the organisation that promotes the language, would like to see Rumantsch Grischun, a standard written form of the language, used in all schools by next year. Other people would prefer to continue using their local varieties of Romansh in schools.

According to a book I was reading yesterday, Sustaining linguistic diversity: endangered and minority languages and language varieties, there have been similar problems in Ireland with the government wanting a standard form of Irish taught in schools, while people in Irish-speaking areas (gealtachtaí) would prefer to use their local varieties of the language.