Dispatch from the Ministry of Endangered Languages: An Interview with Daniel Kaufman

New Yorkers walking down Stanton Street on the Lower East Side on Saturday, May 30th stumbled across an unusual sight: a van painted with poetry written in dozens of languages and a tent announcing an “All You Can Speak Buffet” offered by the “Ministry of Endangered Languages.” A collaboration between the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, the Endangered Language Alliance, CityLore, and Bowery Arts and Science, this pop-up Ministry was part of the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival, offering passers-by hour-long classes with native speakers of endangered languages. Afterwards, USDAC Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz caught up with Daniel Kaufman, Executive Director of the Endangered Language Alliance,  to learn more about this urgent cultural issue and what we can do to preserve linguistic diversity.

 Adam: Let's start with the basics. Roughly how many languages are there in the world? How many are endangered and what are the criteria for getting on that list?

Daniel: There are roughly 6,000 languages in the world today. More than half are considered endangered. We can define “endangered” by the probability of a language surviving this century. UNESCO has created a set of criteria for evaluating the “health” of a language. The number one factor on this list is transmission from the parental generation to the young children. A language can have many thousands of speakers but if it is not being passed on to children it can disappear within a single generation.

The second factor is the sheer size of the speaker population. Other factors include the status of the language, the community's opinion of the language, the percentage of the country's population that speaks that language, and others. These factors give us a picture of a language's chances for thriving or declining over the coming decades. 

Why is language preservation important? What do we lose when we lose a language?

With the death of each language, we lose a unique identity and history as well as a wealth of knowledge about how human language works. We also lose knowledge about the environment and a body of oral literature. 

What languages were taught at the All You Can Speak Buffet at the pop-up Ministry of Endangered Languages? Who did you find to teach them?

  Marie-Reine Jezequel teaching Breton to an attentive audience.

Marie-Reine Jezequel teaching Breton to an attentive audience.

The languages taught at the Buffet were K'iche', Kurdish, Ikota, Mixteco, Breton, and Yiddish. (Kurdish is not an endangered language in Iraq but we included it because we had a great teacher.) All the teachers are collaborators who we've been working with in some capacity over the last five years. Some of them, like Isaac Bleaman (Yiddish) and Daniel Barry (Kurdish), are graduate students. Our K'iche' teacher, Leobardo Ajtzalam is our director of radio and is starting a K'iche' class later this month for the first time. It will be a rare opportunity for New Yorkers to learn a Mayan language from a native speaker over the course of several weeks.

Our Ikota teacher, Safiyatou Dvorak, got in touch with us after an article came out about our organization in the New York Times in 2010. We've been working on documenting her language ever since. Our Mixteco teacher, Maximiliano Bazan, is a maintenance man at a prestigious New York City private school, and he's also an excellent storyteller and translator. He does most of the court translations for Mixteco speakers in New York who don't speak Spanish. Finally, Marie-Reine Jezequel, our Breton teacher, was one of the founding members of the Diwan bilingual school which, more than anything else, was responsible for the resurgence of the Breton language in France. ELA's unique contribution to New York City is bringing individuals like these together to strengthen each others' languages and share them with the public. 

 What's something that you learned or that surprised you during Saturday’s event?

I'm always surprised and delighted at people's enthusiasm for languages they've never heard of. There was a classic advertisement throughout the subway stations of my youth that read: “You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread.” We're trying to show that you don't have to be Mixteco to love the Mixteco language or Ikota to love the Ikota language. Languages, like good rye bread, are meant to be shared with everyone and I think that was clearly on display at the language Buffet. 

If someone reading this gets inspired by the cause and wants to help protect language diversity, what would you encourage that person to do?

I tell people to start local. You don't have to fly to the Amazon to do important work. New York has become one of the most—if not the most—linguistically diverse spots in the world. Many of the new immigrants who are routinely ignored in this city the busboys, the food delivery folks, the taxi drivers, the nannies possess tremendously rich linguistic knowledge that is not being transmitted to the younger generations. Go forth and meet them. Find out about their languages. Find out if they would be interested in making recordings and translating them with you. Talk to us about how you could produce high-quality recordings and archive them. Saving a language requires a communal effort but almost anyone can contribute to the conservation of endangered linguistic knowledge. 

Now, if you'll indulge a little imaginative act: let's pretend there was an actual federal agency prepared to spend a vast amount resources on this critical issue. They call you up and ask you to propose one massive new program or policy. What do you tell them?

I do not have to imagine very hard here as I had the opportunity to advocate for such a program to the Smithsonian, which is part of the federal government. What I told them was—in a nutshell—if we're serious about keeping languages alive and not just pickling them for posterity, we have to be in the business of creating environments for language transmission. Just as in the UNESCO criteria, transmission is paramount, everything else is secondary. I would create facilities for a summer camp that could immerse children in a different language and culture for two months a year. Let them not only live in their ancestral language but use it in traditional settings. Let them absorb the knowledge that's in danger of being obliterated and ensure the longevity of the world's languages, crafts, songs, literature and approaches to nature.

These things are more important than volleyball. Summer camps can save the languages and cultures of the world if only we were more willing to take a chance with them. Among others, the Latvians set up such a camp here in New York State when they thought the Soviets were going to erase Latvia from the map. It seems to have worked wonderfully and with outside support and some resource sharing we could make a massive impact on truly preserving diversity, not just pickling it. 

 The POEMobile, brainchild of USDAC Cabinet Members Bob Holman (Minister of Poetry and Endangered Language Protection) and Steve Zeitlin (Minister of Art in Everyday Life). 

The POEMobile, brainchild of USDAC Cabinet Members Bob Holman (Minister of Poetry and Endangered Language Protection) and Steve Zeitlin (Minister of Art in Everyday Life).