Silencing Nations: Gladwin's Research Exposes Indigenous LanguageLoss

June 14, 2010

Silencing Nations: Gladwin's Research Exposes Indigenous LanguageLoss

VALDOSTA -- Dr. Ransom Gladwin believes language is more than abstract interpretations depicted in dictionaries; dialects are the essence of one’s cultural identity formed through generations of wars, progress, myths and flavors.

The associate professor of Modern and Classical Languages has been studying the diversity of Meso-American language speakers in the region since 2004. Gladwin, who specializes in second-language acquisition, has watched languages fade, and with them the spirit of those who once spoke the dialects proudly. These ancient languages -- about 16 languages in the Wiregrass region -- are being replaced with more dominant tongues, a common trend among displaced immigrant populations.

“In researching this topic, we all became even more respectful of the ancient linguistic repository possessed by these people, who are often maligned as simply immigrant Spanish-speaking laborers,” said Gladwin, who classifies Meso-America as a region that stretches from Central Mexico to Honduras. “Unfortunately, the study notes the potential reality of intergenerational Meso-American language loss among the respondents. This is common among dislocated immigrants and their children with such strong economic and social incentives to adopt languages of power.”

Findings from his ongoing research to examine linguistic diversity and its potential for loss will be published in the Florida Foreign Language Journal in October. The article shares results from a 2004 study of Guatemalan/Mayan communities in Southeast Florida and a subsequent study that examined language trends among peoples in the North Florida/South Georgia area -- known as Wiregrass country.

Confronting Extinction

Indigenous languages are in crisis, Gladwin said. Native dialects in the United States face an unsettling future, with 45 of the 175 Native American languages still spoken in the United States predicted to soon be extinct. While the 2007 study revealed a strong loyalty among respondents to speak native languages, particularly in the home, the Meso-American people face a similar fate of eventual language loss.

“The Guatemalan Civil War, the longest in modern Latin American history, decimated these indigenous peoples. During nearly a half-century of sustained violence, hundreds of thousands of Meso-Americans sought legal refugee status in and/or fled to the United States,” Gladwin wrote in the article. “Now they face losing their linguistic heritage because they must focus on survival. Many are not with their families, their children are working a lot, and the community wants future generations to learn languages of power that will give them access to dominant culture.”

Preservation Efforts

Gladwin said he is optimistic with news of efforts to preserve these language descendants of the great Mayan and Aztec cultures. In Jupiter, Fla., immigrants have begun holding an annual “Fiesta Maya.” The community has also opened the El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center, which serves as an employment facility and cultural resource for thousands of Guatemalans in the area. The poorer Wiregrass country has no such endeavors, but Gladwin hopes his research will bring awareness to the region, and that the speakers will be encouraged to continue to speak and pass on the more than 12 languages in the region.

“These activities are integral to Meso-American language maintenance and should benefit future generations -- specifically the young in school as there is a link between knowledge of culture and language and overall academic success,” said Gladwin, who has taught at VSU since 2005. “Young people have proven pivotal, as they have shown themselves to be knowledgeable and responsible in passing on their heritage and language.”

Youthful Perspectives

Young people similarly proved pivotal in the research, Gladwin said. Graduate assistants Kim and Kristi brought a passion and uncluttered perspective to the project that reinvigorated all those involved and reminded us of the importance of such studies.

“I hadn’t used students in my research prior to the 2004 study, but they were invaluable to me,” said Gladwin. “I think it gave them wonderful insight into the research process and put faces to the issues they had been learning about in class.”

Gladwin said he hopes this research offers new considerations in the raging immigration debate. At the very least, Gladwin said he hopes it will demonstrate that immigrants should not be, as they often are, clumped into one Spanish speaking ethnic group. The immigration issue, Gladwin said, is much more complex than what it seems at first glance.

“This research is based on people, and hopefully it gives them a bit of a voice. They were so impressed that we were interested in their culture and language, and I hope it gave them pride,” Gladwin said. “I like that this research is coming out now because I think it gives a more complete picture of immigration issues.”

Still Speaking

Future studies are planned with larger sample sizes in Moultrie and other areas with significant migrant populations. Gladwin said he will continue to encourage student participation in his data gathering and plans to keep his research focused in the area.

“We are a regional institution, and I am proud that we are engaged in regional research. Who better to survey the issues of our area than people who live and work here? These issues do and will impact all of us.”