Adele Horne: Can you talk about language and identity, especially as it relates minority groups and indigenous peoples?
Rosemary Beam de Azcona: Language is a huge part of culture and cultural identity. In some places in the world it's actually the defining feature of an ethnic identity. For example, in Mexico you watch people on the news, with very dark, straight hair, dark eyes and brown skin who would not be defined as "Indians" by the population of Mexico, because they speak Spanish and they participate in the dominant Mexican society. Somebody who's living in a highland mountain village in Chiapas or in Oaxaca might be physically very similar to somebody who lives in downtown Mexico City, but one person is called an Indian and another person is not. The reason that's usually given is that this person speaks Maya or Zapotec or Miztec and this other person speaks only Spanish. So, the person who speaks Maya may also speak Spanish, but they're defined as an Indian because they speak Maya as well. It's only the person who doesn't speak Maya that's not defined as an Indian.
In a lot of places, like in Mexico, your ability to speak some indigenous language is the one defining criteria that is going to be used to determine who you are ethnically. That's something that the larger society says, but it may also be something that you yourself internalize and believe. You might actually belong to a different ethnic group than your parent, if your parent speaks this language, and you don't speak that language. So, it's very important in terms of identity.
Horne: How do groups of people lose their native, indigenous languages?
Beam de Azcona: A lot of times what happens is that one generation, or a particular person in a family, makes a decision not to pass the language on to their children. A whole generation of people might say "Well, we see that people who don't speak our language and instead speak Spanish, or English, or French, or whatever the colonial language is, are getting ahead. They're getting jobs and they are not having as hard a life as I'm having. I would like my children to have this better life, and if I teach them my language they're going to be stigmatized the way I am. It's probably better for them to not have this stigma over their head, and so therefore I'm not going to let them speak Zapotec or Miztec or whatever my native language is."
And so, if this person is bilingual even though they may still speak to their spouse in their own language and their children may hear this language and be somewhat familiar with it, they may only speak to their children in the dominant language: Spanish or English. Or, even if they're monolingual, sometimes they will push their children to only speak this other language. Children, oftentimes in school, or even at home, may be punished for speaking an indigenous language, and that is going to be what kills the language. The children are going to grow up being monolingual speakers of Spanish or English, the dominant language, and then that's going to be the only language that they pass on to their children.
Some languages have survived and others haven't, and there's a big push in a lot of communities to bring languages back. But it's extremely difficult, and it takes a ton of effort, time and money to bring a language back once it's gone. And even then you can't really bring it back in the same way. It's going to be changed somehow, which is fine, but it would be a lot easier on everyone if the language just survived from the beginning.
Horne: What are the consequences of losing a language?
Beam de Azcona: When there's a language shift, you may have a situation where children are unable to communicate with their grandparents. This really is the breakdown of the family that people worry about so much. You can have the whole family together, not divorced, and still have the breakdown of the family because if the grandparents cannot talk to the grandchildren, then they really cannot transmit these ideas.
In some cases, immigrants in the United States can't talk to their own parents because the language shift has happened so quickly, and they've spent all their day in school with their English-speaking friends, and less and less time speaking their parents' language at home. Sometimes you really have a communication gap even within one generation.
Other consequences of losing a language include a loss of diversity of linguistic structures that are interesting to academic people like myself, linguists. Also, ethnomedicinal and ethnobotanical knowledge can be lost, because in a language you actually have a whole classification system for all the plants and animals that exist in the natural environment. Recently I attended a linguistics conference in which an ethnobotanist named Eugene Hunn spoke about how children who haven't yet acquired the full range of language will know thousands of words for plants that can be seen on walks through mountain villages in Oaxaca. He said that this had always amazed him, but then he realized that urban people also have a "natural environment," which is the mall! And we, too, can name thousands of products in our natural environment. We know how to identify Adidas and Skechers and Nike and Reebok, and we can classify them, so if I say, Easy Spirit, or if I say "Skechers," all of a sudden you have access to all this information — like whether the shoes are comfortable, how much they are, what the wearer's age and social class might be — that is signified by a brand name.
If you're living in a more rural place, then your mall is the forest, and your mall is just the path that you take every day when you go to the field and you see all of these different plants and animals and fungi. You see these things and know that some are edible, and you know that some are dangerous, you know that some could cure you if you get sick in a particular way. You have all this knowledge, which you acquired by talking with your parents, your grandparents and the people around you who have the knowledge, and the terms that go along with that knowledge. And those terms are in the indigenous language. They're not necessarily in Spanish. They might come to exist in Spanish, but if there's a quick transition between the indigenous language and Spanish, then there may not be time for all of those things to be translated, and a lot of terms aren't going to be passed on. There could be the cure for cancer waiting out there and it's going to take a lot longer to find out about it, because the person who could pass this knowledge on is unable to because there will be nobody who speaks their language. We're losing not just words but the knowledge behind the words.
Rosemary Beam de Azcona is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Research Center for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. She received her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She has worked on Southern Zapotec languages, especially Coatl·n-Loxicha Zapotec (CLZ), since 1996.