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Teaching the Unit - Procedure

Ask your students to provide a definition for an endangered language. Even if they have never heard of this term, have them guess. After watching the film, see how students might change their definitions.

Before showing the documentary, have students think of all the languages they know of. Write their responses on the board and count them. Then ask them to estimate how many languages are spoken throughout the world. Finally, tell them that a currently accepted estimate of the number of languages in the world is 7,000+.

Ask your students what a dialect is and how languages and dialects differ. Remind them that mutual intelligibility is one of the basic tests to determine language vs. dialect (for definitions of mutual intelligibility and other terms, please reference the glossary). Ask your students whether they've ever heard someone speaking English in a way that was so different that they could not fully understand it. Should this person be considered to be speaking a different language? For more detail on American dialects, look at the materials accompanying the PBS documentary film series Do You Speak American? (http://www.pbs.org/speak/education/curriculum/high/regional/)

For other resources, including books and websites, please visit Resources.

Discussion Questions

General Questions

  • Why should we care if Chulym or Chemehuevi or Kallawaya survive? Would you feel the same way if English or your native language were on the verge of extinction?
  • Do you agree with the UNESCO declaration (http://www.unesco.org/most/lnngo11.htm) statements that "All language communities have equal rights" (Article 10, section 1) and "Everyone has the right to use his/her language in the personal and family sphere" (Article 12, section 2)? Explain.
  • Latin is called a "dead language," and in a way this is true: There are no speakers left who learned Latin as a native language. Latin is survived by its descendants, including Spanish, Italian, and French; and Latin is taught in schools. Do you think Latin is dead? Ainu is a language spoken by just a few people in the far north of Japan. There are no languages known to be related to Ainu. If Ainu ceases to be spoken, do you think it will be dead in the same way as Latin?
  • Do you see problems in using biological metaphors—death and extinction—to refer to the loss of languages? Why do you imagine communities connected to endangered languages might have problems with those metaphors? What are some similarities and differences between these biological processes and language loss?
  • A critical stage in language death is reached when children stop learning the language. Discuss the kinds of conditions that would make children want or not want to learn a language spoken by their parents or grandparents.
  • The U.S. has speakers of various languages besides English. In June 200, a sign outside of Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia read, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH."' How does this sign relate to what you learned about the treatment of endangered languages in The Linguists? Did you know that the language spoken by the original inhabitants of what is now Philadelphia was not English but a now endangered Native American language called Lenape?

Class Activities

Map Exercise 1

Visit the places where the last speakers live. Use Google Earth or another mapping software to locate the following latitude/longitude coordinates. Would you consider these places "remote"? How far is the nearest city? What are their topographic characteristics?

Chulym (Russian Federation): North 57 degrees 0'14.2" / East 088 degrees 45'851"
Sora (India): North 18 degrees 58'57.4" / East 84 degrees 01'.82"
Kallawaya (Bolivia): South 15 degrees 08' 1." / West 9 degrees 0'10.40"
Chemehuevi (USA): North 4 degrees 0'27.74" / West 114 degrees 18'55.08"

Map Exercise 2

Show your students the Ethnologue's Languages of the World Map (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_map.asp?name=world). This map has one red dot for each living language listed in the Ethnologue (almost 7,000), placed in the "primary location" of the language.

There are a lot of discussion points possible here: Where do you see clusters of dots? Give some possible reasons why languages may be distributed in this pattern. What would be the correct location for the dot representing a global language like English?

Click Sounds

Experiment with sounds that do not occur in English, for example click sounds found in some African languages such as N|u (see The Linguists video extra N|u, South Africa, also viewable on The Linguists website), and also in Quechua, which is spoken in the film by one Kallawaya healer.

Class Debate

Have the class debate this question: Should we encourage saving all languages, or should we instead have everyone speaking one language, such as Esperanto, the international constructed language? Assign one group pro, one group con, and have one group judge the debate. Give students time to prepare.

Take-Home Assignments/Activities for Students

  1. The remaining speakers of Chulym and Chemehuevi grew up speaking a language with their families at home that was entirely different from the language used in businesses, at school, in the newspapers, and on TV. Perhaps some of your students or people they know are growing up in circumstances like these (or grew up, if it's an older relative). If so, ask them to write about their feelings toward their mother tongue.
  2. Using the Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/web.asp) and/or the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages (http://www.tooyoo.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp/archive/RedBook/index.html), have your students work in groups to find one language each from Africa, North America, South America, East and Central Asia, South Asia, Europe, and Oceania (Australia and surrounding islands) that is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people; note down a few facts about the language (who speaks it and where they live, what other languages it is related to, what major languages are threatening it, etc.); and report to the class.
  3. Language provides historical information in that borrowed words reveal a history of cultural contacts. Have students find out what language English has borrowed the following words from. Most unabridged dictionaries include the origin of words (their etymology) in word entries. There are also special dictionaries of etymology (http://www.etymonline.com), even some online.
    • robot (from Czech, robotnik, "slave." First used in its modern sense in a 1920s Czech play.)
    • penguin (probably from Welsh. Originally "pen-gwyn," literally "white-head.")
    • hammock (from the Caribbean language Taino or a related language; amaca meant "fish nets.")
    • chipmunk (probably from the Native American language Ojibwa. Originally pronounced "atchitamon," it meant "one who descends trees headlong.")
  4. A great activity to expose students to the native languages of the U.S. is a historical research project on a Native American language, preferably one spoken in their area (for example, Lenape in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware). Students should investigate the language and its speakers. What is the status of the language? If it is still used, how does it coexist with English and other languages? Are members of the tribes who spoke the language still living in the area?
  5. Consider organizing some interaction—a field trip or a talk to your class by a representative of a local minority language group or a linguist who is helping to document a language. Throughout the country, dozens of Native American tribes are battling to keep their language alive.