Queens College professor works to save Indian and other languages threatened with extinction

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Numerous languages, including some from India, are under threat of extinction, according to a professor at Queens College in New York, who is committed to conserving them.

Professor Daniel Kaufman, a linguist at Queens College. Photo: Andy Poon, Queens College.

Daniel Kaufman, a professor of linguistics at Queens College since 2015, finds Queens Borough of New York City, with its diverse population, among them South Asians, is an ideal location for his work.

“As many as 800 distinct languages are spoken in New York City,” he is quoted saying in a press release from Queens College. “Queens is the epicenter of that global linguistic diversity.”

However, words aren’t all that Kaufman is documenting. “Each elder speaker within a small language community will have unique knowledge of that language and culture that can easily be lost if it’s not passed down or recorded,” he says.

Around Jackson Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, large communities with origins in Nepal, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico, reside. All of these nations of origin, happen to be among the most multilingual in the world, Kaufman notes.

The census shows that Jackson Heights is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the United States, the press release notes, and Kaufman thinks this area may have the highest linguistic density anywhere in the world.

“There is one building where seven community organizations were housed in seven offices, each one representing a different Nepalese town and language,” he says.
Kaufman conducts part of his research on campus at his language documentation lab, one of only a handful in the United States. Students are actively involved in the lab’s work. From the lab, these students can borrow equipment to record languages spoken in their families and communities, which they then study applying scientific principles of linguistic analysis.

Tenzin Namdol, a student in Kaufman’s project, recruited her friends to contribute narratives in the Mustang language for the Voices of the Himalaya project, which Kaufman is involved in. This project has collected dozens of narratives documenting the linguistic diversity of the burgeoning Himalayan community in Queens and Brooklyn. Tenzin continues to recruit participants and help with translation and transcription of the recorded narratives.
Kaufman plans to create a public repository for all the language material collected through his lab.

In addition, he is committed to understanding what happens to these groups in New York, the press release said.

Some of the questions that Kaufman asks are –

“What aids them or prevents them from using their languages here?” “Do they face discrimination for using their languages?

“Do various dialects of a language blend with each other in the city, as we might expect in a melting pot?”

While this work has been carried out for New York City Spanish by other linguists at CUNY, we know virtually nothing about questions of language choice and change among smaller immigrant communities in the city, the press release said.

 

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