The Fight to Preserve New York’s Numerous Languages

Amba Guerguerian Feb 24, 2020

The auditorium at Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan was crowded with about one hundred people, helping themselves to the hot tea and sitting in folding chairs in the marble-floored auditorium. A myriad of languages were audible among the crowd as they waited for the International Mother Language Day celebration to commence. 

The event coincided with the release of a multi-lingual video series from the mayor’s office, promoting the IDNYC card in Arabic, Fulani, Garifuna, Indonesian, K’iche’, Kichwa, Mande, Mixteco, Nepali, Punjabi, Tagalog, Thai, Uzbek, Wolof, and Yiddish, among other languages. 

As proceedings got underway, Daniel Kaufman, director of the Endangered Language Alliance, one of the organizations hosting the event, joked about the difficulty of obtaining enough money to fund the project. 

“This is a rich city, but at the same time, a very austere city when it comes to the budget,” he said. Observing that many of the attendees were bundled up in their winter attire, he added: “We’re in one of the city’s greatest halls of justice, and they don’t have money for heating.” 

Representatives from other hosting organizations addressed the audience about the importance of fighting to keep endangered languages alive. Language is part of the cultural mosaic that makes living in New York City a journey-like experience, they argued, an integral part of our collective and individual identities.

‘The demand for one’s right to speak one’s language, eventually becomes the right to be free.’

Forty-three percent of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world are at risk of being eliminated, Bitta Mostofi, the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, reminded the audience. She explained her struggle with teaching her daughter Persian. 

“It’s not an easy thing,” she said. “It’s my second language. It is, however, my family’s tongue. It is the way that I understand my culture, my history, connect with my community, and I don’t want that to be lost on her.”

Yoloxochilt Marcelino, a representative from Red de Pueblos, a NYC-based network of community groups that is led by rural and indigenous communities from Mexico, spoke to the audience in Mixteco, an indigenous language with roots in the mountains of Guerrero. 

“We are few who can continue speaking these languages, and we should feel very proud of our roots, of where we come from,” she said first in her song-like Mixteco and then in Spanish, “because that is what defines who we are, our language.”  

Hassan Ferdous, a Bangladeshi community representative, writer and journalist, spoke last, educating the attendees about the origins of the holiday. 

“The demand for language, the demand for one’s identity, the demand for one’s right to speak one’s language, eventually becomes the right to be free,” he said. 

In Bangladesh, where five young men were gunned down by the police on Feb. 21, 1952 for protesting the Pakistani government’s imposition of Urdu, International Mother Language Day is referred to as “Martyr’s Day.”

The killing started a movement that would ultimately result in Bangladesh winning its independence from Pakistan in 1971, after a bloody war for liberation. In 1999, UNESCO recognized Feb. 21 as International Mother Language Day. 

“Why should I care about a language that dies?” Ferdous asked. “We care because with a language dead, dies also the rich treasure trove that came with the language, the fairytales, the songs, the knowledge.”

Monica Avilés, the founder of Wawakuna, an organization that celebrates Andean and Kichwa culture, and promotes civil and immigrant rights, told The Indypendent about the discrimination she has experienced for speaking a foreign language. 

“I came here when I was fifteen,” she said. “I crossed the border by myself. When I came, I found that a lot of kids would bully me. They used to push me against the wall and make me say things,” she recounted

When Avilés lived in Ecuador, her home country and the home of the Kichwa people, a child couldn’t be registered as a citizen with an indigenous name. Today, her five-year-old son faces similar discrimination. Avilés recently unenrolled him from the school he was attending, because his teacher told him that he couldn’t play his Kichwa instruments during a celebration of Hispanic heritage. 

“The system needs to be upgraded,” she said. “Those teachers need to go back to school.”

Her friend, Diane Ward, a teacher and representative for the National Writers Union, agreed that systematic change is necessary to combat language discrimination.

“Until that change takes place, let’s face it, you wanna protect your child,” she said. 

By the evening’s close, most attendees trickled out, but a few remained to listen to audience members take the stage and speak a few words in their mother languages, from Tagalog to Farsi. 

Ward sought out the speakers of Garifuna, a mix of African and indigenous dialect originally spoken on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. She thought that it might be one of the languages most closely related to the language that her family, from St. Thomas, used to speak, a language that she couldn’t remember the name of, but that her great aunt was the last survivor of. 

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