Speaking in tongues of generations past

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Queens, one of the most linguistically diverse areas on Earth, is at the forefront of the battle to save thousands of the world’s languages expected to disappear in the next century.

In a borough renowned for its diversity, linguists believe there are many individuals who speak languages in danger of disappearing, extinguishing humanity’s chance to gain insight into nearly extinct cultures whose history and stories could be forever lost.

Officials and volunteers from the Endangered Language Alliance, a Manhattan-based group, is working to find these people and preserve and document such languages as Mamuju, an Austronesian language spoken by one known person in Rego Park, and Aztec and Mayan languages, including Mixtec and Naheatl, spoken by populations in Corona and western Queens.

The alliance estimates Queens residents speak far more than the 138 languages documented in the census, in part because many of those who speak the endangered languages are undocumented immigrants or because people will only note the most well-known language they speak, such as Spanish.

“So many of these languages have evolved over tens of thousands of years, and that fact alone makes them irreplacea­ble,” said Daniel Kaufman, one of the ELA’s three directors and a professor of linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. “These languages show us new ways of expressing ideas and what humans tend to think is relevant. For example, many languages in South America will say where they got the information for every statement they make, if it’s from a mythical tale or a friend, things like that. It gives us a clue into the human mind.”

Kaufman founded the ELA about two years ago and with his CUNY students has tried to canvass different areas in Queens and Brooklyn to find the speakers of endangered languages. They are, for example, working with Husni Husain, a 67-year-old Rego Park resident who speaks an Austronesian language, Mamuju, he used during his childhood in Indonesia.

Of the approximate 6,000 languages spoken in the world, as many as 90 percent are expected to disappear within the next century, in part because of the marginalization of different ethnic groups in various parts and standardized education, which will promote one dominant language, Kaufman said.

While other researchers will do field work in different countries to document the endangered languages that often have not been written down, Kaufman said little had been done prior to the ELA’s formation to work with individuals in major cities in the United States.

“We have all these cities that attract immigrants and many speak these endangered languages, so why haven’t we been doing anything with these communities?” Kaufman said.

The alliance, whose other two directors include Juliette Blevins, who will head the CUNY Graduate Center’s new Endangered Language Initiative this fall, and Bob Holman, the founder and owner of the Bowery Poetry Club and a professor at Columbia University, will soon launch efforts to bring volunteers into Queens and Brooklyn so they can identify and document many more languages than they can now solely with the linguists with whom they have so far worked.

These volunteers, and anyone else interested in the ELA’s efforts, will meet at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. June 5.

For more information about the Endangered Language Alliance, visit or e-mail

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:46 pm, October 10, 2011
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