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Losing One’s Tongue: Endangered Languages in Pandemic New York

For all the spunk and spirit of many of their inhabitants, most nursing homes are not known for being vibrant, exciting places.

Queens is an exception.

New York City’s (NYC) second-most populous borough, which holds a Guinness World Record for being the “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet,” is not your typical nursing home. Rather than people, it’s languages that come to Queens (and NYC as a whole) to live out their waning years—and in some cases, to be born anew

“The capital of linguistic diversity, not just for the five boroughs, but for the human species, is Queens,” write cartographers Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in their atlas Nonstop Metropolis. Like most things in NYC, that stunning diversity is in large part the product of immigrants and immigration, from Dominican Spanish speakers to Judeo-Kashani-speaking Iranian Jews to Seke-speaking Mustangi.

Unfamiliar with those last two? You’re in good company. Besides copious numbers of speakers of the world’s linguistic behemoths—English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, and so on—NYC is home to hundreds of rare and obscure languages. Judeo-Kashani, for example, is the language of the Jewish community of Kashan, Iran. It withered with their movement out of Kashan and around the globe in the 20th century. Today, one of the last speakers of the language, Isaac Yousefzadeh, lives on Long Island. Seke, which comes from a tiny cluster of five villages in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, is spoken by about 700 people—just over 100 of whom live not in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, but in a few apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens. 

The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), a NYC-based non-profit focused on language documentation and preservation, estimates that there are some 800 languages and dialects spoken throughout the city—over ten percent of the estimated global total of 7,117 extant languages. A significant number of those languages—like Judeo-Kashani and Seke—are now more than, or just as, prominent in NYC as they are in their homelands. 

In some ways, this prolongs their linguistic lifespan, removing them from places where they are often unloved and unsupported and bringing them to a city where organizations like the ELA are dedicated to chronicling and supporting their existence. Exactly that happened with Vlashki, a language from the Istrian coast of Croatia whose speakers returned to it from Croatian after leaving the Balkan country for NYC in the 1960s. For every Vlashki (which is itself now under threat), though, there’s a Seke or Garifuna (an Afro-indigenous language spoken in Central America) that’s facing the pressures of cosmopolitan NYC, with its lingua francas of English and Spanish disincentivizing heritage languages for second-generation immigrants. The result? For many of the world’s minority languages, NYC holds the power to make or break them. 

And all of that was before COVID-19 arrived.

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The story of immigrant NYC during the pandemic is a tragedy within a tragedy. “Nearly every New Yorker has been affected,” by the pandemic, wrote the ELA in a May 2020 statement, “but the effects have not been evenly distributed…multilingual immigrant communities have been among the hardest hit.” At the peak of the NYC outbreak, poverty, high numbers of essential workers, and linguistic barriers combined to deal disproportionate damage to the central neighborhoods of Queens—Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona—which are home to the city’s greatest linguistic diversity. In April they had nearly the same number of COVID-19 cases as all of Manhattan, an area three times more populous. NYC Councilman Daniel Dromm, who represents the former two neighborhoods, described them as “the epicenter of the epicenter,” of the pandemic to The New York Times

Image by Languagemapping.org

The damage to immigrant communities isn’t restricted to just Queens.“The most linguistically diverse stretch of neighborhoods in Brooklyn…including major Jewish, Caribbean, and post-Soviet diaspora communities, has the highest number of cases in [that] borough,” said the ELA in the statement referenced earlier. The same pattern can be seen in Harlem, the Bronx, and Staten Island, where Latino and Black immigrant groups from the Americas and West Africa have struggled with high mortality rates and high levels of social vulnerability (as shown by a map in this article).

The overwhelming impact of the pandemic on endangered language-speakers is illustrated by the ELA’s “Diaries from the Epicenter” project. It features speakers of Himalayan (Tibetan, Nepali, and Bhutanese) and indigenous American languages sharing thoughts from their lives under quarantine and offering advice to compatriots. In one entry, Urgen Lama, a Dolpo-speaker (a Tibetan language from the high altitudes of Nepal), mixes cheerful reflections on his children and the clearness of the NYC sky with somber thoughts on caseloads just beginning to decline at the hospital where he works. In another, Ismael Alvarez, a speaker of Tu’un Savi, or Mixtec (a collection of indigenous Mexican languages), describes the circumstances of the pandemic and means of transmission. The diaries, with their tallies of deaths, opinions on antiracism protests, and struggles with online learning, reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of ordinary people in chaotic times—except that these people speak some of the world’s most at-risk languages in a place where their very existence is tested every day.

That brings up a question: what’s happening to the languages themselves?

In one respect, the pandemic has been an opportunity of sorts. “Several communities we work with have responded creatively and remotely and been more in touch with each other than ever before, and that probably is having a positive impact on the language,” said Ross Perlin, Ph.D., Co-Director of the ELA, in an interview with The Politic. Signups for virtual Zoom Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) classes have surged in the city’s Sephardic Jewish community. The Tibetan community has been similarly engaged: Yeshi Jigme Gange, a volunteer Tibetan teacher for children in the Tibetan diaspora, moved his classes online and continued teaching for much of the pandemic. With intergenerational families often spending more time under the same roof then before, there have been increased opportunities for language transmission. “I tried to teach basic Tibetan consonants and numbers to my children,” Lama noted in his recounting of the events of Wednesday, June 3. 

The ELA has played a part in sustaining the momentum. The COVID-19 diaries include entries in Amdolese, Loke, Tibetan, Dolpo, Dzongkha, Yolmo (all Tibetic languages), Mixtec varieties, and Me’phaa (both indigenous Mexican languages), as well as K’iche’ (a Maya language) and Nepali. Collectively, they constitute a unique linguistic resource, a publicly available time capsule of all these tongues—languages which in some cases have not been extensively recorded until now. The ELA’s advocacy efforts have in some cases coincided with those of NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has put out public health materials in at least twenty-five languages. “Of all the pandemics, this has been the one where there has been the most concerted attempt, perhaps, to have public service announcements and [similar] things translated,” Perlin said. The simple action of releasing a flyer or video in a language can provide “quite a boost,” for endangered language communities by affirming the value of the language, he added. 

Unfortunately, the potential gains stemming from the pandemic seem tenuous at best. A fundamental problem is the geographic and economic proximity of many speakers of endangered languages to the COVID-19 pandemic’s NYC epicenter. The linguistically diverse Himalayan, indigenous, and Southeast Asian communities of NYC are all highly concentrated in the Queens neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by the virus (see thumbnail image and map below). Members of these communities also frequently work in jobs that are especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s impacts, whether directly—as in the case of Filipino and Himalayan healthcare workers—or indirectly—as has been the case with Latino construction and restaurant workers. 

Image by M. Roy Cartography/Nepali Times

With so many people working and living so close to the virus, the pandemic has, as mentioned earlier, had a disproportionately devastating impact. Linguistically, to say nothing of the personal impact, every speaker lost is a blow to a language’s viability, especially when those who die are older speakers. “In smaller communities, the loss of one elder who was the keeper of a language can have an outsized impact that’s harder for speakers of larger languages to really fathom,” said Perlin. Endangered languages and their speakers could emerge from the pandemic under severe demographic pressure to abandon heritage languages.

There’s also the problem of societal pressures to move away from heritage languages as a result of the pandemic. For all the efforts to increase language access and remove language barriers to information and resources, the way the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled could perniciously disincentivize maintaining endangered languages. 

“This kind of situation tends to reinforce, in multiple ways, the dominance of dominant languages…. People find that to get emergency information or to get treatment or insurance or other kinds of things that they need to speak in [a] larger language,” said Perlin. “[When] you understand what the priorities of a society are and you understand what the power relations are and perceive at a conscious or unconscious level that [your] language may be more or less useful,” the negative effects of losing those who already speak the language are compounded by the shrinking of the base of people interested in continuing to learn and speak it. 

“The vitality of a language is something that changes over a generation, or multiple generations, so you’re not necessarily going to see an immediate impact in a couple of months in terms of the overall fate of a language,” noted Perlin in the interview. But when languages lose both current and potential speakers, they rarely last for long. Before the pandemic arrived, immigrant New Yorkers were already facing the challenges posed by an immigration policy made of walls, not doors. If COVID-19 causes enough of a diminishment, NYC’s endangered languages could face a withering that will gradually erase them not just from the city’s fabric, but from the human story. A perfect storm is on the horizon, and it’s bound for immigrant New York.