Anastasia Riehl started the Endangered Languages Alliance Toronto and began to document the dying languages in the world that are still spoken around Toronto, including Santonofrese, a language that is spoken in a small village in Calabria in the southern part of Italy. However, Riehl found out that some of the languages only have one or two speakers in Toronto or even around the world. One of the reasons for dying languages is the lack community to share the language with.
She had been mainly documenting many of the languages overseas until she found out that the last fluent speaker of Livonian, a dying Latvian language, lived just outside Toronto while she was still in Argentina. In 2011, she was able to interview Grizelda Kristina, who was 101 at that time.
Creating a documentary
Since her interview with Kristina, Riehl had likewise interviewed many speakers of eight endangered languages across the globe and is currently working on creating a short documentary about the stories narrated by three speakers. She had taken time off from managing Queen’s University-Strathy Language Unit to work on the documentary.
Toronto, being one of the world’s most diverse cities, with over 30 percent of the population speaking a language other than English, makes is the right location for endangered languages documentation. Toronto estimates that there are over 140 languages and dialects spoken in the city but Riehl believes that there are more languages that do not appear in the census data.
According to UNESCO, when speakers stop using or fail to pass the language to the next generation, the language becomes endangered. Riehl had observed that there are pressures that cause people to speak the dominant language, and that the phenomenon is not only present in English-speaking countries, but in several countries where immigrants are present. She feels for the current group of young refugees who are now scattered in new places. If they do not have proper support and a community to be with, they will eventually succumb to pressure and learn the language of the new country they are in.
The shyness to speak their native language could not be compared to the hardships North America’s Indigenous Peoples had to bear when they were colonized, according to David Kaufman, Rhiel’s colleague at Cornell University grad school and founder of New York’s Endangered Languages Alliance. He said that in New York, one could hear almost every language in the world except Lenape, which is the indigenous language of the state. It is an Algonquin language that is now only spoken and taught in Ontario, Canada.
Although Rhiel had interviewed many speakers of indigenous languages for her project, she said that grassroots initiatives were ahead of her. According to Bonnie Jane Maracle, nationhood is what differentiates the indigenous communities’ endangered languages from the rest. Maracle assists in running the programs to teach the Mohawk language to members of the Tyendinaga First Nation. She said these indigenous people still have a nation, a land and a home to go back to, whereas the immigrants would not have a place to return to or to re-learn their language.