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Speakers of endangered languages converge on Mall

June 28, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — They traveled far from the Tuva Republic, a predominantly rural region of Russia, to the United States in hopes of saving their culture from slow extinction.

The group of eight musicians and craftsmen speak Tuvan, one of more than a dozen endangered languages represented by native speakers at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington.

The festival’s program, “One World, Many Voices,” focuses on drawing attention to dying languages around the globe, bringing speakers of languages on the verge of extinction to Washington to explain the challenges to passing their linguistic heritage to younger generations. Other themes presented this year include exploring Hungarian heritage roots and a look into African-American diversity, style and identity.

“It’s dying because urban kids, they start to forget their language, our language, and even older generations, lots of people from Soviet time, they have lost their language,” said Tuva native Aldar Tamdyn, 38. As he spoke, he worked with his hands to build an igil, a two-stringed, bowed musical instrument used in his traditional Tuvan throat-singing band.

According to Smithsonian curators, about half of the world’s 7,105 languages are reported as endangered. Of those, 3,524 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people each.

“These people are under a lot of social and economic and political pressure to abandon their languages and to switch over to global languages,” said K. David Harrison, co-curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s endangered languages program.

Nearly half the world speaks one of the top 10 languages, which include Mandarin, Spanish and English. Tamdyn said he tries to resist using languages other than his native tongue but has often found himself using mainstream languages out of convenience.

“Even I have started to use lots of other words from other languages. Lots of words from Russian languages,” Tamdyn said. “It’s very upsetting. When talking to the younger generation (in Tuva) I always correct them.”

The speakers all brought with them a talent or skill from their area of the world in an attempt to educate festivalgoers about their culture as a whole.

Conrad Nolberto, a native Garifuna speaker from Dangriga, Belize, took a break from drumming on hollow turtle shells to educate school-age children about his language, walking them through simple pronunciations.

“Our language is our life,” said Nolberto, who is a member of the Libaya Baba drumming and dance group from Belize. “I got the privilege to come to the States and help my kids, and that’s why I’m here. And I brought my culture with me, and I thank the Smithsonian for giving us the chance to share our culture with the American people.”

Festival coordinators expect more than 1 million people to attend the free event, which began Wednesday. It runs through Sunday and resumes July 3-7 with special concerts most evenings.

The daily event schedule can be visited on the festival website, http://www.festival.si.edu, or by downloading the Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival smartphone app.

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