UNT Students Work to Save Endangered Language

When she was invited to speak in front of the United Nations about her community and after helping to translate human rights documents from English to her language, Sumshot Khular realized there were many words and larger terms about human rights that her native Lamkang language didn’t have.

“She then saw that part of human rights is also language rights,” said Shobhana Chelliah Linguistic professor at UNT.  “Then if you lose your language, you lose your culture, then you lose your way of being.”

That’s when Khular ventured into this 10-year running project to support the Lamkang language of her home state of Manipur in northeast India. Khular joined around 10 UNT linguistics students to work on the National Science Foundation project run by Professor Shobhana Chelliah to use inguistics to create something that Khular says Lamkang needed.

“We have been an oral tradition society, so everything is descended from your grandparents, or dealt to us by orally teaching, it can be of any form, it can be way of everyday life, how you cook your food in the kitchen, how you do agriculture, how your medicinal system works, the health systems because we practice all those health in the community using herbs all those traditional items so it is all handed down from generations” Khular said. “There is no written way of how you will do all these things.”

In Manipur, Khular said there are about 35 tribes with each having their own specific language. The state has its own language and as children go to school they begin to learn English, but the language of their tribe is left to be forgotten as they move through their education. This made it hard to mobilize the community to cooperate or get behind the idea of documenting the language.

“People would say, ‘we are speaking and there is no problem for the language to be lost. We want our children to learn English not our language because we speak our language all the time. We want our children to learn English so they can get jobs or so they can be out studying,” Khular said.

Prior to the work of Khular and the Lamkang Language Education and Literature Society, there wasn’t much documented of the Lamkang language. Now, they are both pushing to create a standard dictionary and translate folk stories and the Bible so the Lamkang community can maintain its culture.

Khular visited UNT twice as visiting scholar through the J-1 visa to work on the UNT Lamkang project.  Last year UNT created a fully-funded MA for linguistics students from indigenous communities and awarded it to Khular to continue contributing to this project at UNT.

“That shows a huge investment the university is making in supporting our field but also the cause of an indigenous community and sort of saying ‘we believe that this is an important way of preserving human rights and liberty,’” Chelliah said.

The investment from Khular and her team is also evident as they navigate through several programs and the tedious underpinnings of language to do right by the Lamkang community.

Melissa Robinson, a student helping with the project focuses on acoustic phonetics on a program called Praat, which is Dutch for speech. In the program, she can import a sound bite of Khular pronouncing a word and can see the weight pattern of the word. When looking closely at the weight pattern, she can break apart the characteristics of the word that are absent when just hearing it. Something which may not have been heard can be seen on this program and determines what letters make up the word and the individual qualities that create its meaning.

“Every word has a fingerprint,” Robinson said.

Tyler Utt has been working on the project for about eight years and is the second most fluent in the room next to Khular because of the time he has spent on it. Utt works with a program called SayMore that collects metadata of the translations. He will translate phrases from stories sometimes by knowledge off his head or using context to make the translation in English as clean as possible. He works to make the translation not so literal and what it is intended to mean.

The team analyzes aspects which are rarely taken into consideration with everyday conversation because they truly believe in the importance getting it right as language is a part of the human experience. Hearing the tiniest of sounds wrong or using the wrong letter can give word a completely different meaning.

One of these aspects they work with is gemination. It is when a sound produces two of itself closely together in a word. They determine whether this elongation exists or doesn’t because sometimes it just isn’t as evident.

“It may be small debate, but it’s an important one,” Robinson said.

While Khular  helps the UNT project by doing fieldwork and being the in-house translator, the team is analyzing the most intricate parts of the language alongside her in hopes of helping this community.

Shobhana said languages like English and Spanish have become so homogenized and similar in what they say, but smaller languages like Lamkang have their own personality and way of thinking which we shouldn’t have to lose. For example, in Lamkang when you are going somewhere you have state if you're going to the place via uphill or downhill. It is something unique to Lamkang which Khular and this team feel is special enough to document and physically be able to give to the children of the tribe.

“We would lose that if the language went. And so what linguists are trying to do is say ‘okay this is really interesting, it tells us something about being human,’” Chelliah said.

Khular said she doesn’t know how long this will go on because they will truly never be done as there are so many parts of language that can be analyzed, added and worked upon but as of now she simply hopes they can show that this language is worth saving and it can flourish in the process.

“As a human, without a language, you are nobody. You are known by your language, language is also your identity[...] so as a group of people you have your right to your language,” Khular said.


Update: The language is endangered and not dying. We have updated the article to reflect this, please disregard the header image which says otherwise. 

Header image by Tori Falcon.

Header image layout design by Holden Foster.

Tori Falcon