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Revitalising endangered languages: a service for all

Bringing a language back from the brink is not just a way to preserve cultural diversity. It is also an investment in a more inclusive society where a wider variety of citizens can thrive. EU-funded researchers are pioneering new approaches and techniques.

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The EU-funded project ENGHUM is building capacity for the study of linguistic-cultural heritage and the revitalisation of endangered minority languages – and it is doing so through research conducted with, rather than on, the communities that speak them.

Creating spaces for minority languages is first and foremost a human rights issue, says project coordinator Justyna Olko of the University of Warsaw. It is an asset for native speakers’ cognitive development in early life, she adds, and an acknowledgement of their ethnolinguistic identity. ‘Going back to the language, or giving recognition to the language, is also part of the healing process for many communities that were subjected to trauma or discrimination.’

Active community

Olko refers to the project’s work as ‘engaged research’. ‘Basically, this is participatory action research, and community-based and community-driven research,’ she explains. ‘It brings direct benefits not only to the academic institutions involved, but also to the communities that participate in the process. Communities are involved at all stages of the research project as autonomous stakeholders.’

ENGHUM was launched in January 2016 to support the University of Warsaw’s pursuit of excellence in the field. Two academic partners – the University of Leyden and the University of London – are contributing expertise to this drive.

‘We realised early on that this was a mutual learning enterprise, particularly in that we were able to include representatives of minorities in the capacity-building,’ says Olko. ‘I think this was the novelty of the project, because this engaged research and empowerment could really be implemented in practice.’

For many minorities, the ENGHUM approach is unprecedented, Olko explains. To give an example, she points to collaboration focusing on what was once the mother tongue of the Aztecs.

‘In our field school in Mexico, we were able to involve some 40 indigenous speakers of Nahuatl, and most of the event was carried out in this language,’ she says. ‘This had never happened before for this language, which is denied recognition and its place in institutions such as schools and the healthcare system.

Different continents, similar challenges

Closer to home, ENGHUM is helping to revive the fortunes of a language specific to a small community in southern Poland: Wymysiöeryś is unique to the town of Wilamowice, where only a small number of speakers remain.

In line with the project’s participatory approach, local activists and researchers are cooperating in this effort to transmit this Germanic language to a new generation and foster greater awareness of the community’s cultural identity. Particularly innovative approaches included the production of plays, which were written by teenagers and performed by young residents of Wilamowice both on-site and at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, Olko notes.

‘The children and youths who performed became very active,’ she adds. ‘There are already over 20 new speakers of the language, which is pretty unique within such a short time frame.’

The capacity-building side of the project also produced exciting results. It has notably contributed to the creation of the Centre for Research and Practice in Cultural Continuity at the University of Warsaw, Olko reports. And it paved the way for a new research endeavour, which is backed by the Foundation for Polish Science from funding provided by the EU’s Structural Funds, she adds.

‘In this project, called ‘Language as a cure’, we are attempting to show the effects of linguistic discrimination and loss of a language on health and well-being,’ she explains. ‘We also want to calculate the economic costs to society.’ Because linguistic discrimination does, indeed, come at a cost, as it affects the targeted community’s performance in education and employment, Olko concludes.

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Project details

Project acronym
ENGHUM
Project number
692199
Project coordinator
Poland
Project participants:
Netherlands
Poland
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 999 836
EU Contribution
€ 999 836
Project duration
-

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