Kunama: Keeping a language alive in my free time

A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Er...
A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Eritrea. photographer: Temesgen Woldezion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is a native speaker of the Kunama language.  The Kunama people traditionally live along the border of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Since the war started between these countries, the Kunama community are experiencing a grim fate, and many have left their traditional lands as refugees, and many refugees have expatriated abroad.  In this post I would like to focus not on politics, but on the question of what I can do to help the Kunama language.

The language fascinates me.  It is a “linguistic isolate,” which means that it’s not related to any other language.  (Another example of a more well known linguistic isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and France.)  Some linguists have proposed that it belongs to a group called Nilo-Saharan, but others dispute whether this constitutes a true linguistic group.  In other words, some people believe that Kunama is related to other languages, but no one can prove it.

Looking at the numbers, I wonder if the Kunama language could disappear in the near future.  I found a source that estimated Kunama speakers currently at about 140,000.  I would like to know how many of them are monolingual, as every one that I met speak at least four languages.  With the pressure to move out of their land, they assimilate more to Eritrean and Ethiopian cultures, and those who move abroad experience even more pressure.  My friend’s niece and nephew, for example, who came over to the US as young teenagers, speak little Kunama  and speak Tigrinye more often to their relatives.  Their children will most likely not speak any Kunama.

Could I help to document this language?  I know this is an odd question; it seemed odd to me, too, at first, but then I saw that it makes some sense for me to do so.  When I first fell in love with languages, the obscure always struck my fancy.  That’s why I adored Ukrainian, Moroccan Arabic, and Syriac.  When I was 14 and reading about what linguists do, I learned about anthropological linguists who live among exotic peoples and study their language.  In college, I even took a “field methods” class on how to document and describe languages among native speakers.  A few years ago, I was having coffee with my old linguistics professor from college, and he challenged me to do some work on Kunama, since so few people had done so.  So it actually isn’t my idea originally!

Funny enough, I happen to be well situated geographically to work on Kunama.  Significantly, my friend lives in Denver, my home town, so doing “field work” there would not be expensive.  Also, the big annual Kunama festival takes place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is one state away. (In case you are wondering,  “Why in South Dakota?” I heard South Dakota has the largest population of Kunama because many of the refugees work in the meat-packing industry.)

Practically speaking, though, it would be difficult.  I have a job, I want to teach, too, and I have a family–how could I find time to document this obscure language?  It certainly wouldn’t pay me anything to do so.  (Unless one of my dear readers knows something I don’t . . .)

Does anyone have ideas on how to document a minority language in one’s spare time?

Language Deficiency

Image courtesy of nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“I want to make friends with someone who isn’t American,” my oldest daughter said at dinner Monday night.  School started here on Tuesday, and my oldest daughter began middle school.  “Not just so I can ‘be nice,'” she continued, “but because I think it would be really interesting.”  People from other cultures pique the interest of my daughter.  They bring experiences and languages that fascinate and teach her.

Significantly, Americans usually define non-native English speakers as deficient.  People who do not speak English well or at all “lack” English skills.  They are “non-“native English speakers.  One who lacks English may be an upper-class French adult, or a lower-class Ethiopian teenager; both fall into a single category: English deficient.  American life requires some amount of English.  This communication skill is one that we have to possess or gain.  So the skill of speaking English is a skill that one possesses or lacks, and the failure to communicate falls on the non-English speaker to make up for their deficiency.

This attitude deprives English-speakers of understanding others and themselves in a deeper way.  Non-native English speakers often conceal knowledge and skills.  Those who lack English, except for the most severly developmentally disabled, speak another langauge (at least).  In this way the French-speaker differs greatly from the Ethiopian Amharic-speaker.  I befriended a woman from Eritrea whose English was very limited.  Nevertheless, she spoke her native Konama, plus Tigrinye, Amharic, and some Arabic.  Even though many graduate students in the US lack this sort of linguistic skill, this Eritrean woman was categorized as deficient, because of her lack of English.  She was expected to take ESL courses to gain more English.  No one seemed to be interested in the linguistic knowledge she possessed.

Monolingual English existence in the US renders us blind to the relationships and information we miss everyday.  We remain complacent that we get all the information we need because we possess the most essential communicaiton skill: English.  Even when we travel overseas, we can get everything we need through English.  As we move through Vietnam, Tajikistan, and Bolivia, we can always find an English-speaker–until we can’t.  Frustration confronts us: How do we communicate?  Then we see the wall between us and that person and all the valuable information he or she may possess.  This barrier separates us partly because of my lack of Vietnamese, Tajik, or Spanish skill, which I have been lacking all along.  This experience makes me see my own language deficiency.

Everyday in the US such people exist behind these self-imposed barriers.  If we learn to confront that wall between us and the many non-English speakers in our US cities, we can make new relationships and gain new insight.  Because of my study of Farsi, I met our Iranian neighbors, who speak very little English.  I learned about their lives and their Bahai’i faith.  Moreover, they loved communicating with me, as difficult as my lack of Farsi skill made our conversation.  Overcoming my language deficiency brought me to the other side of this barrier.

When we native-speakers of English view English-learners as deficient, we miss what we can learn from them.  This quadrilingual Eritrean can teach English monolinguals how to learn languages or how to translate or how to live through difficult circumstances.  Realizing that we are in a position to learn from non-native English speakers changes the power dynamic.  Rather than try to fill up their deficiencies, we try to fill our own.  Rather than teach, we learn.  Instead of waiting till we travel to see our deficiencies, we can try to befriend those around us who possess language skills that we lack.

Do you live near or work with people who do not speak your language as a native?  What have you learned from them?  Are you a non-native speaker of the dominant language around you?  Do people classify you as deficient, whether explicitly or implicitly?

Postscript: The idea that we see non-native English speakers as deficient was inspired by a chapter from Martha H. Bigelow’s Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, Racialized Identity, and Education in a New Land (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), wherein she discusses the challenges of teaching English literacy to Somalis, who “lack” literacy in their own language.