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  • Writer's pictureJan Bishop

Family History: Can Language & Culture be Lost?

Ancient Latte Stones on the island of Tinian
Latte Stones-Tinian, The Mariana Islands

At the end of 2014, my husband and I moved to a small island in the far South Pacific. The Island is Tinian, which is in The Northern Mariana Islands (aka-CNMI) My husband had accepted a job there, the offer was too good to pass up. As a way to get to know the community, we attended a presentation at the library. The speaker was presenting her concerns about the native language of the island (Chamorro) and how it is at risk of being lost. The children are not being taught the Chamorro at home; the Island is a Commonwealth of the United States, so the children are taught English at school.

The population of Tinian while we lived there was around 3000. And I would say that a good portion of that 3,000 were individuals from other places like the Philippines, Nepal, India, China, and Japan. These places have their own cultural influences, which they brought with them, influencing the island's current culture.

The Chamorro language is considered endangered. It is one of thousands of languages that are endangered. A language becomes "dormant" once the current generation cannot speak it. An endangered language can become dormant within the space of about 75 years.

The effects of losing a language can have cultural ramifications, such as losing a unique perspective of that culture and its language to describe the world around us. Language and culture are intertwined in shaping our experiences and viewpoints. Language and culture are part of the heritage a current or past generation shares with the future generations. When a language dies, so does a way of thinking.

Latte Stones, Tinian, The Northern Mariana Islands
Latte Stones, Tinian, The Northern Mariana Islands

You may be wondering, how does that relate to me and my family history? Stay with me; I do have a point. I live in the United States of America; the U.S. is a vast melting pot of people from around the globe. Many people in the U.S., including myself, are a mixture of many different ethnicities.

A strand of DNA
A strand of DNA

2018, I took a DNA test, not because I didn't know where my ancestors were from, but because I was curious to know how the various ethnicities would manifest in my DNA. I have ancestors from England, Scotland, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Balkans. I know very little about the cultures of these countries and regions, and I do not speak another language. Countries often have an official language, but many other languages may also be used. For example, Scotland encourages schoolchildren to learn English (the primary language) and two additional languages. In France, the official language is French, but over 25 additional regional languages are spoken.

Where are your ancestors from? Do you have any languages and cultures that risk becoming dormant?

A world globe with a magnifying glass.
A world globe.

If you are curious, here are some resources to study: Language Matters with Bob Holman, Saving a Language, Preserving a Culture

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