Advertising often gets a bad reputation. Companies seen as trying to sell you something, to get you to spend money on something they make (whether you need it or not, and especially when the answer is ‘not’) are ‘just in it for the money.’ Like everything else in life, the reality is rarely so black and white. Which is why when I read about corporations or brands uniting their corporate goals with something truly worthwhile, I want to share it.
Vodafone, a European mobile telecomm provider, started a marketing campaign called Vodafone Firsts, and decided to help promote it by bringing together the last two known speakers of Ayapaneco (aka Tabasco Zoque), a language from Mexico which has almost completely died out. These two friends, who stopped speaking to each other many years ago over a disagreement about the Ayapeneco language itself (how’s that for irony?) have reunited and agreed on a form of the language, and now teach it to local children in an effort to bring this language back to life.
You can read the article I found from Mashable, and I highly encourage you to watch the video Vodafone created as well.
I’d like to be able to say that language death is a rare occurrence, but that’s simply not the case. As you can see from the Endangered Languages Project and UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, thousands of languages are at risk, several critically so. Language vitality relies on new generations of speakers to keep not only the vocabulary and grammar, but the cultural knowledge shared through languages, alive. I could go on and talk about language policies that force citizens to only learn certain languages at the expense of others, or about how people have worked hard to revitalize languages that were almost lost, but I’d rather share something more personal.
The majority of my family is Polish, and the majority of my ancestors first came to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. Although I took Polish language courses in grade school, I retained very little, and am now limited to a greeting, some numbers, and words for food. But I remember my grandmother having conversations with neighbors, and code-switching easily between English and Polish, mostly when she didn’t want us grandkids to understand what she was saying. It was amusing and somewhat frustrating at the time, but now I just feel the loss of that tie to my family’s history. I had a brief opportunity to take advantage of that knowledge and I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better at the time. And while there are still many Polish speakers in the world, in my family and community at least, those numbers dwindle every year.
I’d love to hear from people who’ve had similar experiences with languages spoken in their family, whether fluently or not. Share your stories in the comments—I look forward to reading them!