The Journal Gazette
Friday, November 01, 2019 1:00 am

PFW conference highlights push to rescue native languages


Amy Kalili's father is part Hawaiian, but she didn't grow up speaking the language at home. And, where she lived, in Hilo on Hawaii's Big Island, that wasn't unusual.

Not too long ago in the 1980s, she said in Fort Wayne on Thursday, estimates were that there were only 20 native speakers of Hawaiian under the age of 18 in the whole state.

“I was of my generation. Hawaiian language skipped my generation,” Kalili said.

But having rediscovered the language through schooling, she now is among a growing number of young Hawaiians working to preserve it.

And they're part of a worldwide generation unwilling to see their ancestors' native tongues teeter on the brink of extinction.

About 350 like-minded people are at Purdue University Fort Wayne this week attending a conference on rescuing indigenous languages.

The conference marks 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages as declared by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Mary Encabo, a PFW lecturer in the department of English and linguistics, says endangered languages range from the Native American tongue spoken by the Miami, who were among the region's first inhabitants, to the 135 or so languages spoken by some of its newest residents, refugees from Myanmar.

She said she has worked with some of those resettled refugees.  

“My language is not endangered, but certainly a lot of people at this conference see their language at threat of disappearing,” said Encabo, who speaks Tagalog and whose heritage is Filipino.

It's crucial for languages be preserved, Kilili said, because people's history, folklore and worldviews are preserved and passed on through language.

One place where it still can be heard is in churches, through hymns, Bible translations and ceremonies, she said.

“There is priceless information that is in our languages – how we relate to each other, see our selves and our environment,” said Kalili, director of Mokuola Honua Center for Indigenous Language Excellence at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

She said one technique being used in Hawaii to pass on the language is immersive day care where older people teach Hawaiian to very young children simply by speaking only it.

At a news conference Thursday, PFW Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer praised organizers of the event.

He said it showed the university's commitment to diversity, multiculturalism and global awareness. PFW has 320 international students from 45 countries, he said.

The university plans “to refocus our recruitment strategies” to recruit more students from abroad, Elsenbaumer said.  “It is our goal to increase our international student population over the next several years.”

The conference continues 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday in Walb Union and features talks, panels and music and dance performances. It is free and open to the public.

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