Do you speak or study another language? Is it easy to find books, dictionaries or videos in that language? In the article “Just 700 Speak This Language (50 in the Same Brooklyn Building),” the New York Times writer Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura documents a language that originates from a region in Nepal but that has very few remaining speakers today. In this lesson, you will be asked to think about the importance of preserving languages and the different languages that can be heard in your neighborhood or school.
Note to teachers: This lesson also offers activities specifically for students who are English language learners. Educators, based on your student body, consider if it might be meaningful for them to reflect on their personal experiences with language and culture. If you are a teacher of students who are English language learners, you may want to further explore this Reader Idea for teaching English as a new language using The Times or this resource for teaching Tier Two words with The Times.
Brainstorm ways that you can learn or absorb language. Have you ever observed a baby learning language? How is that similar or different from what you know about how teenagers or adults can learn a new language? What are ways that books or apps teach language? How can languages be learned or preserved through cultural experiences or at home?
If you speak a different language at home than at school, think about when you use and interact with your home language. Do you ever see it written anywhere? Do you know how to write and read in that language? Where do you hear it? When do you need to use the language?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. What is the Endangered Language Alliance? Why is Rasmina Gurung working with the alliance?
2. What are some of the reasons that the linguist Husniya Khujamyorova is writing children’s books in Wakhi?
3. Ross Perlin, a director at the Endangered Language Alliance, said that “languages are not dying a natural death.” What does he mean by that, and what examples did he give to support that claim?
4. What are some of the reasons that Seke speakers immigrated to the United States? What are some of the similarities and differences between their lives in Nepal and in New York City?
5. Nawang Gurung, a New York-based translator, talked about some of the reasons that Tibeto-Burman languages that were spoken in the Himalayas are disappearing. What are some of the factors that he describes as being part of the decline of Seke speakers and of other speakers of Tibeto-Burman languages?
6. What is Ramaluk? What does this new dialect tell you about language evolution over time? How could Ramaluk affect the preservation of Seke?
Choose one or both of these Going Further activities:
Option 1: Languages in My Community
Explore this map of languages spoken in New York City from the Endangered Language Alliance. Do you recognize any or all of the languages that are included? Do you see any languages that are spoken in your neighborhood or school community? Create a map or list of the languages spoken in your town or even just in your classroom.
If you are in the United States, you can use this map from the United States Census Bureau to see what languages people identified speaking in 2010. The United States also has many languages that have been lost because of its history of colonization and because of the displacement of Native Americans. Look at this map from Native Land to see if you are able to identify the Native American languages that were spoken in your area. Do you know if any of those languages are still spoken by tribal members in your community or elsewhere?
Option 2: Culture in My Home
How can you identify culture in your home? Is it through language, decorations, religious traditions or the observance of holidays? The article describes the home of Nyaka Gurung (shown above):
Nyaka Gurung, Ms. Gurung’s uncle, has built low, wooden rectangular seats along the walls, covered with rugs, a common setup in Nepalese living rooms. Scrolls of Tibetan deities hang on one wall.
On a recent visit, offerings were laid out under a framed photo of the Dalai Lama that hung above a large plasma television. A thermos used to serve hot butter tea, the national drink of Nepal, stood on a table nearby, and the smoky fragrance of chumin, a Tibetan incense, blended with the smell of Indian spices from the kitchen.
What are some of the elements of culture in Ms. Gurung’s home? Make a list with two columns: one for the object (hot butter tea) and one that names the cultural element (food). Then, think of your own home and make a list of objects and how they relate to your culture. If you have time, write a description of your home like the one in the article. You can use these questions to guide you:
What objects are important to you or other members of your family? Why?
What are the spices or cooking ingredients in your home? What dishes can be made with them? Where do you or other family members buy those ingredients?
Is there anything in your home that was not purchased in the United States or the country or city where you currently live? Is that object important to you in any way?
What language or languages are spoken in your home? If you have a television, what kinds of programs are playing? Is there instrumental music, singing or radio programs in another language playing at your home?
Are there objects of religious significance in your home? Are there certain foods or other traditions that you practice for holidays?
Be sure to use vivid language and details in your description so that someone can imagine what your home looks like.