DENTON (UNT), Texas — A University of North student trying to save her disappearing language is getting some unique help keeping it alive. Sumshot Khular, an Indian native from the northeastern state of Manipur, has been working with UNT linguistics professor Shobhana Chelliah and several other UNT students to document the Lamkang language and translate it into written form.
“In the beginning, people were suspicious and wondering what was the need for our work,” said Khular, who is from the Thamlakhuren village. “Now they realize that it would be nice to teach your children your own language.”
The language is labeled as “critically endangered,” – one level below extinct – since fewer than 10,000 speakers remain, according to UNESCO. Of those, most are elders who speak the language infrequently or partially. Globally, an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 languages are “in danger,” and 230 have gone silent since 1950.
Part of the problem is that no Indian schools teach Lamkang. Instead, Lamkang is passed down through stories, songs and lessons about crafts important to the culture. But things are different now.
“There’s been a very drastic change even in the last ten years, with the coming of electricity and television,” said Khular, a UNT International student who’s pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics. “Storytelling doesn’t continue because everyone is watching TV.”
The UNT team wants to change that with the Lamkang Online Lexical Database. The project started nearly 20 years ago with Chelliah, the faculty researcher on this project who was approached by the community for help preserving the language.
Thousands of miles away from Chelliah and UNT, Khular had begun her own efforts to help revitalize her language. A chance introduction in 2013 brought the pair together, but it would be another three years before the two women could fully connect. Following a couple of trips to UNT on J-1 Visas, Khular knew she wanted to go back to school.
At UNT and in travels to India, students learn about the science of language, its structure and sound systems. And they use techniques – such as acoustic analysis, linguistic annotation, rapid word collection, sound identification and how verbs and relative clauses function – to translate Lamkang.
“It’s a lot like looking at a heart monitor,” said Khular about acoustic analysis. “You break the words down and try to identity the falling and rising tones and the vowels and consonants that make up the language.”
In the project, she acts as a guide – helping her fellow students with the knowledge of a native speaker.
Previously, said research assistant Tyler Utt, “if I had a word I didn’t know or if I wasn’t sure about the translation, we would just have a gap in the material.”
Utt is one of several researchers – including current students Levi Acord, Evaline Blair, Mary Burke, Christine Carr, Berwyn Chong, Samantha Hardisty, Jane Lorenzen, Jonisha McKiddy, Will Reiman and Melissa Robinson – who have helped over the years. Grants totaling more than $390,000 from the National Science Foundation have provided funding for their work, including Khular’s participation.
Back in her community, only the Bible and a biblical hymn had ever been translated. However now, due to her work and the work of the Lamkang Language Education and Literature Society, several pictorial children’s books, folk tales, songs, human rights documents and dictionary are done, and community meetings and an education committee have improved awareness of the need for preservation.
“Language is everything for us,” said Khular. “Language is our identity. Language is the source of our culture and traditions and how we communicate everything from healthcare to agriculture. Unless you keep the language alive, all of this will die out.”