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Linguists struggling to preserve endangered immigrant languages

Anastasia Riehl, left, runs a Toronto program trying to preserve endangered immigrant languages.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Since she arrived in Canada more than two decades ago, Zouriya Jayman has found few people to converse with in her native tongue, Sri Lankan Malay. But on a frigid day earlier this year, two linguists turned the living room of her high-rise apartment in north Toronto into a sort of television studio in order to document Ms. Jayman's endangered language.

Ms. Jayman, who is in her 80s, grew up speaking the creole language in the central Sri Lankan town of Kegalle, and she is one of roughly 40,000 Sri Lankan Malay speakers worldwide, and some 1,000 in the Greater Toronto Area. In a lively and loose interview with linguist Mohammad Jaffar, another native Sri Lankan Malay speaker, Ms. Jayman fielded questions on the language's uncertain future as a camera recorded the session.

"Zouriya felt that we were truly the last generation of full native speakers," Mr. Jaffar, 78, said, interpreting Ms. Jayman's answers into English. "Later generations, she felt, showed a regrettable lack of interest and no enthusiasm for speaking in Sri Lankan Malay."

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With no codified spelling system and a general community apathy toward preservation, the language's prospects for survival are grim.

Anastasia Riehl, who organized and observed Ms. Jayman's interview, is bent on changing that for Sri Lankan Malay as well as the dozens, if not hundreds, of endangered immigrant languages she believes are surviving across the GTA. The linguist and founder of Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, a fledgling organization determined to track down endangered immigrant languages currently surviving in the GTA, says her ambition is not so much endangered language preservation as it is education, to simply root out speakers and record their native tongues for posterity.

"People are excited about linguistic diversity here, but at the same time these languages are unnoticed," said Ms. Riehl.

As a magnet for immigrants from all over the world, Toronto is one of North America's most linguistically diverse cities, home to more than 140 languages, according to city figures – though that number is almost certainly an underestimate. In 2006, there were more than 1.2 million people born outside Canada in Toronto alone.

The total number of endangered immigrant languages in the GTA is unknown, but about a year and a half into her project Ms. Riehl has hunted down and documented more than 10, including Faetar, a Francoprovençal dialect from southern Italy with fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining worldwide, and South Efate, a Malayo-Polynesian language from Vanuatu in the South Pacific. "It's an incredible laboratory," she said of the GTA. "It has to be one of the best in the world, maybe second to New York, but maybe not even."

Indeed, Dan Kaufman, a Columbia University linguist and executive director of the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, which inspired Ms. Riehl's project, believes Toronto and New York are the continent's most fertile landscapes for the study of at-risk languages. "With Toronto and New York, we're somehow sitting in the middle of the immigration crossroads, where we can have access to people from all over the world."

According to UNESCO's Endangered Language Programme, at least 43 per cent of the world's roughly 6,000 languages are in peril, with half expected to vanish by the end of the century. The crisis is fuelled by the vagaries of globalization: Widespread urbanization whittles away old cultural traditions; transnational migrants must learn the dominant language of their new homes.

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Also at work are what UNESCO calls "internal forces," brought on by the speakers themselves. They often have a tragic dismissiveness of their own dying languages, Ms. Riehl said. They're embarrassed, or view the language as uninteresting or irrelevant in the context of a sprawling city such as Toronto.

Ms. Jayman, for one, said in the interview she considers it rude to speak Sri Lankan Malay when others are speaking English – even at community gatherings. "She'd take a person aside to converse with her in Sri Lankan Malay so as not to offend the others present," said Mr. Jaffar, 78 who works with the alliance.

When Arsen Abramov, a 46-year-old Bukharian Jew, emigrated from Uzbekistan to Toronto in the early 1990s, he had more pressing concerns than preserving the ancient endangered language of Bukhari, which, he said, would have been an impediment to assimilation. Immigrants "care about setting up in the country with their new life, and that takes about 15 to 20 years," said Mr. Abramov, who speaks a "little bit" of Bukhari. By then, the next generation has a waning relationship to the language of their parents.

With the exception of indigenous tongues, Canada isn't thought of as a place where languages are at risk of extinction.

But in fall 2011, Ms. Riehl learned of a 101-year-old woman named Grizelda Kristina. Ms. Kristina was the last native-born speaker of Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language once common in Latvia, who lived in Utopia, Ont., a hamlet just west of Barrie. It was an extraordinary stroke of serendipity – Ms. Riehl's parents met a family friend of Ms. Kristina on a trip to Argentina – but the linguist couldn't immediately venture north to conduct an interview.

With Ms. Kristina in poor health, a recording was critical. So Ms. Riehl notified Mr. Kaufman. "I kind of dropped everything and jumped in a plane," said Mr. Kaufman, who spent a day videotaping Ms. Kristina speaking Livonian.

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Her death last June at age 103 crystallized the urgency of Ms. Riehl's project. "She was literally the last speaker of the language," Mr. Kaufman said, "a real treasure house of knowledge, both linguistic and cultural."

For the alliance, the search for fading languages is a maddeningly drawn-out process, rife with dead ends and reticent subjects and often accomplished by word of mouth. Ms. Riehl, who works with a team of five volunteers, has plans to record Urhobo, a language from southern Nigeria, as well an Italian dialect called Limosanese.

Ms. Riehl hopes the alliance's efforts will one day rub off on the speakers of these endangered languages, spurring them into preservation mode. But as an outsider, she pointed out, there's only so much she can do to combat those "internal forces."

"If the community is not interested," said Mr. Jaffar, who works with the alliance, "no amount of organizations worldwide can force themselves on the community and say, 'We'll help you put the language back on its feet.'"

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