Toronto is home to over 140 languages and dialects, with just over 30 per cent of the city’s residents able to speak something other than the two official languages, French and English. However, within that linguistic diversity are languages that might be spoken by as many as 10 people or as few as one.
Sri Lankan Malay, Scots Gaelic and Harari are some of the many smaller languages spoken in the Greater Toronto Area that have been documented by Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, a small group of linguists, researchers, and community members . Founded in 2012, the group work to preserve these languages through video and audio recordings of community members from across the GTA speaking in their native tongue.
TVO.org spoke with Anastasia Riehl, director of Endangered Language Alliance Toronto and director of the Strathy Language Unit at Queen’s University, about the importance of preserving endangered languages.
What is Endangered Language Alliance Toronto?
The idea behind the organization is to contribute to the documentation of languages that are endangered globally by making use of this great resource we have in Toronto, which is linguistic diversity. Thousands of languages are endangered and many of them have never been documented and sadly probably won’t be before they’re gone. There just isn’t enough time, there aren’t enough people who are trained, there aren’t enough resources for people to go out into all these communities and do the necessary documentation work. We realized we have this great resource in this city where many of these languages are spoken by people who have immigrated here, so let’s try to build on that, and hopefully achieve more than we might be able to if we were heading out to different communities around the globe trying to work on languages bit by bit.
How linguistically diverse is Toronto?
I think we’re all familiar with many different language communities that are here, but there are also all kinds of little ones that you don’t hear about that are spoken by one person, by 10 people. So I’m going to say hundreds of languages but it’s really hard to know because the [national] census doesn’t necessarily include them. Languages don’t always have a particular name that people use to refer to them. With a dialect versus a language, for example, there are many dozens of languages from Italy spoken here, but in Italy people talk about them as dialects.
How does a language become endangered?
The situation is typically that the younger people in the community are no longer using the language on a regular basis, perhaps new children being born into the community aren’t being exposed to it as their native language, and once you’re at that point you can say pretty clearly the language is endangered, but it can be a pretty slow process to get there … You might have a language in a community and that’s all anybody speaks, and then over time you want to be able to speak to other communities or participate in the larger region or the nation, so you learn another language, like a lingua franca for example, that other communities also use.
What’s the process for searching out endangered languages?
Most of them have come through personal contacts, or now primarily through people contacting us. They see the website or they see an article and then they get in touch and say, “Oh, my dad speaks this strange little language and no one else can understand him, and maybe you’d be interested in this.” We’ve kind of stumbled along different paths and it’s been enough so far to keep us going, but just getting the word out in any way we can and seeing where it leads.
What’s an example of a language that was revitalized and is now spoken more widely?
There are a few cases that people point to. Hawaiian is sometimes mentioned, but even in those cases a lot has been done, educational programs, radio programs, recognition of the language, but it’s still a struggle. Scots Gaelic is one that some people would say in Scotland they’ve had relatively a lot of success … It’s hard to say how things will play out with indigenous languages in North America, but in a lot of cases sadly, they’re quite endangered. At the same time there has been a lot of interest and a lot of hard work to create programs for some of these languages and schools, and really raise awareness, so I think in that sense they’re kind of ahead of the game.
What projects are you currently working on?
One thing we’ve been focusing on lately are languages from Italy because there are so many in Toronto, and it just seems like a nice way to celebrate an aspect of Toronto’s heritage. Ideally, I want to do projects where a community is really keen and really interested in doing recordings for their own purposes and doing it together. I think it’s much more valuable that way.
Why is preserving endangered language important?
Language and identity are so closely linked for people. Often times when a language is lost, communities feel like their identity is lost, their cultural knowledge in some cases is lost. We see an unfortunate example of that in Canada, where the loss of language for many indigenous communities was really tied to a loss of identity and a loss of place, a loss of community. There are also linguistic arguments to be made for why it’s important. Linguists and cognitive scientists are trying to understand how language works in the brain. There’s still so much we don’t know about how it works, and when we lose a language without understanding the grammatical structure we lose a lot of scientific knowledge.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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