Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Watch me learn a language in a day

That's right. I plan to learn a language in one day.

This Sunday, February 21, is "International Mother Language Day." It's a holiday established by the United Nations in 2000 to promote linguistic diversity, multilingualism, and to rescue and promote languages that are in danger of going extinct forever.

How will I be observing this holiday?

I plan on learning an entire language in one day.

"Monumento a los Mazahuas"
Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Why am I doing it? 

For one thing, I'm extremely vain. I already speak ten languages, and I think I'm up to the challenge. I have what it takes to learn the basics of a language in just one day.

More importantly, I'm doing this to promote the "International Mother Language Day" and to raise awareness about dying languages.

In the past few centuries, hundreds of languages have died out. Humans currently speak between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, but at least half of those languages are in danger of disappearing in the next century.

When humanity loses a language, we don't just lose a different set of words and sounds--we lose all the knowledge and wisdom that language contained. We lose a different way of thinking, of perceiving the world, of solving problems. It's like setting fire to an entire library of books that have no other copies.

At least 13 languages have died out in the past decade alone. These include:

- The Klallam native language of the northwestern United States. (Last speaker died in 2014)

- The Livonian language of Latvia (2013)

- The Pazeh tongue of Taiwan (2010)

- Nyawaygi, an aboriginal language of Australia (2009)

The UNESCO established the International Mother Language Day in 2000. The date commemorates a massacre that took place in Bangladesh in 1952, when students were killed by the police for demanding the right to speak their own language.

What language will I learn? 

I thought about doing Portuguese, since it would be an easy one. I already know Spanish and French, and Portuguese is somewhere in between these two languages.

But then, I decided to go for one of the languages that is actually endangered. I will be learning Mazahua, one of the indigenous languages spoken in Mexico.

There are currently between 150,000 and 170,000 people who speak this ancient language, but the numbers are going down at a rapid rate. Mazahua native people who are younger than 40 are switching almost exclusively to Spanish. This is the case with many indigenous languages, both here in Mexico and across the world. When the younger generation forgets how to speak a language, they are no longer able to fully communicate with the elders. Their cultural identity becomes endangered. All the traditions--legends, wisdom tales, songs, myths, folk memory--could be lost forever.

After I've learned Mazahua, I will do what I can to promote and protect it, to keep it from dying out forever.

How will I do it? 

I was going to learn Mazahua on the 21st of February, since that's the actual U.N. holiday. But then I realized I'm going to have guests in town that day, so I don't think I'll have time to learn a language. Instead, I will be doing it tomorrow, Thursday. If all goes well, by this time tomorrow I should have a basic knowledge of Mazahua.

Of course, I'm not silly enough to claim that I can become fluent in a language in just one day. However, I do plan on knowing enough Mazahua to have a basic grasp of it. I will be able to carry on conversations with native speakers. After studying ten languages, I've learned one or two tricks about how to quickly learn a new tongue.

So how will I do it?

I'll be explaining my strategy in upcoming blogs. Stay tuned for more...

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