Speaking at USP on November 30, linguist experts’ Dr Rolando Coto-Solano, Dr Tyler Peterson and Cook Islander Dr Sally Akevai Nicholas spoke about their experiences dealing with languages that are on the edge of extinction. They believe that engaging in popular culture might be a way to save them.
The trio introduced themselves in Cook Islands Maori, led by Nicholas, then showed a variety of videos, including scenes from Star Wars and Batman films that were dubbed over in a different language, one that was spoken by very few people.
Dr Coto-Solano used this as a springboard to reference the Americas, where there are over a thousand spoken languages, but many of them are endangered due to a lack of speakers.
“On many occasions, the children are no longer learning the languages and only the adults speak them, and they tend to be elderly adults,” Dr Coto-Solano said.
“And in order for them to be spoken again, people will need to relearn the language, likely through books, not living people.”
He mentioned one particular language, where he met the only three living people who spoke it.
But despite the urgency that needed for people to learn their languages of their community, they still found it very difficult to get the children to a place to where they would learn the language, he said.
“What we did was try to bring the language to them, through things that were surrounding their world, like cell phones and through popular culture. Which is how we got to Darth Vader.”
Dr Peterson, who has also spoken with the last descendants of a language, said he saw a noticeable difference in one student’s dedication to learning his language once it was applied to something he had an interest in.
“He tried learning through rote learning, but that isn’t for everyone. So the idea was to use things that someone his age would be interested in.
“Over that four-week period, he sat there for four to five hours a day, translating his language line by line. And what you saw at the beginning (of the presentation) was done by him.”
The success of that experiment encouraged the group to continue trying to work with language in that vein, which is what they did when they travelled to Mauke a couple of months ago.
Dr Nicholas said the aim was to use the “superpower” of the school children, which is to speak their native language - a fact that is not lost on those in the Americas who look to the South Pacific for inspiration.
“(We got) them to play with the tools and technology, because we wanted to see what sort of uses they would come up with,” Dr Nicholas said.
On Mauke, school children were able to use iPads to create visual short stories, where they could choose an environment and create one or more characters, which they would then voice.
“By getting these kids to make their stories, tell it from their point of view, this might be more relatable to kids in other places.”
A bonus for using this technology for Dr Nicholas was that it was a way to expand language, as although it is spoken by a number of people in the community, the way it is used is limited.
“We tend to only discuss certain topics, and these are things to do with church and traditional rituals. But if we are talking about things in the modern world, we often resort to English,” Dr Nicholas explained.
“It’s important that if you’re going to have a living language, one that survives, the speakers of that language should be able to talk about everything, not just certain topics.
“Along with the ancestral knowledge, we need to be talking about science, and science-fiction, the imaginary things that are a part of the contemporary world.
“Because if it is to become a living language, it needs to be used in all spheres of life.”
Dr Peterson wants to use these strategies as a bridge, from children who can speak to language to those who cannot, but share similar interests, in the hopes they will be inspired.
Earlier in the year, the group were at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) during the Cook Islands Maori language week when they again tried out their popular culture language experiment.
“All the participants there were old mamas, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to convince them to have a go. But they actually got quite interested,” Dr Nicholas said.
She said the goal would be to pair up an older speaker with a younger one, and that they could learn over something they both shared an interest in.
Dr Nicholas encouraged anyone who created that involved the Cook Islands language to upload it to the internet, so that at the very least it would contribute to resources that currently exist.
“I think that you should get out there and start making this stuff yourselves. Work with your grandkids and kids, get them doing it, encourage them to make up their own stuff, just to get them having a go.
“And also, when you’re working with the kids, who are just learning, and maybe they don’t get it right the first time, it’s important to be patient with the learning process because it isn’t easy to learn language.”
For more information, all three encouraged contact via email.