Friday, November 11, 2011

Favorite Class: Endangered/Minority Languages

I’ve taken a bunch of classes at Mac so far, but probably my favorite so far is Endangered/Minority Languages, which is taught this semester by Professor Marianne Milligan. The class looks at the causes and costs of language death in modern society and teaches about methods of revitalization and its value. Marianne is undoubtedly an expert in the field, but she brings an on the job knowledge about the subject that you can’t get through a textbook. She did her doctoral thesis and has continued doing post-doctoral work with the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin on recording, preserving, and revitalizing their dying language. Personal experience is pretty important in teaching a sensitive subject like this. She brings perspective to the theories we learn about, the processes of language loss, and the statistics and makes it all understandable on a human level.

Prof. Marianne Milligan (right) conducting fieldwork with Sarah Skubitz, Tillie Zhuckkahosee, Marie Floring, elders from the Menominee tribe, and Margaret Snow, a language learner. Photo courtesy of Marianne Milligan.

I love languages, especially sounds and phonology. They were my favorite part of my Introduction to Linguistics class. A big part of this class is getting a “tour” of the different language families of the world and the ways they work in terms of syntax (order of words), morphology (modifying of words) and phonology. So at least once a week we are touring some part of the world and listening to the different words made in that language from the clicks of the Khoisan languages in Africa to the glottalized ejectives of the Na-Dene or Athabaskan languages of North America. These are sounds you don’t find anywhere in English or other globally dominant languages like Spanish.

But all the academicky stuff aside, class is fun. Every time we hear a new sound we try and make it ourselves. Of course we fail, but it is hilarious and it reinforces an appreciation for other languages. Languages are one of the greatest productions of humans and they set us apart from animals, so why would we want to lose them? It’s sort of a testament to the course, but really for me it is just impressive.

There’s also a broader lack of taboos at Macalester that’s reflected in class - for example, one time in class, I was trying to think of an example of a linguistic concept that was new to many students. I could only think of a curse world. When I blurted it out, rather than responding with quiet stares or shock, my fellow classmates had a good laugh about it. Taboos can hinder learning, but at Mac we really stress not having them and trying to do away with them. I couldn’t say what I said at some schools and still come off as respectful or serious. But at Mac it is understood that learning happens with all words and ideas, even the vulgar and less refined. I don’t know, it resonates with me, and maybe it does with you too.

- Kyle Coombs '14