April 18, 2024, Thursday
Nepal 1:37:26 pm

‘Governments need to preserve endangered languages’

Yuhla Lhawa, Language Revitalization Mentor (Endangered Languages Project)

The Nepal Weekly
May 23, 2023

Yulha Lhawa is a linguist from the Tibetan Plateau. She is a native speaker of Khroskyabs (also called Lavrung), an endangered Tibetan language, and grew up in the semi-nomadic Khroskyabs community as a Yak herder. At age 17, she began documenting the language and culture of her community, leading to the publication of her book Warming Your Hands with Moonlight. She is now a master’s degree student in computational linguistics at the University of Washington. As a language revitalization mentor at the Endangered Languages Project, she is excited to offer guidance about language revitalization, computational tools for minoritized languages, and creating multimedia resources. Yulha is available to provide mentoring in English, Amdo Tibetan, Khroskyabs, and Mandarin to anyone interested in learning more about language revitalization.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Siyuewu Village, a small rural community of 500 people, and grew up as a sheep and yak herder in the mountains of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in China. I am ethnically Tibetan, but Khroskyabs, my mother tongue, is mutually unintelligible with the three mainstream Tibetan dialects. I graduated with a BA in linguistics from the University of Oregon where I wrote an honours thesis titled “Language of Spatial Relations: How Khroskyabs Encode Motion Events.” Currently, I am pursuing my Masters of Science in computational linguistics at University of Washington. 

Why do you love to preserve endangered languages? Why is it important?

There are three simple reasons why I am so passionate about preserving my mother tongue: 

1. To remove my ignorance: 

When I started writing Warming Your Hands With Moonlight, a book about oral traditions in my village published in 2012, I thought I knew everything about my own village and culture. I confidently interviewed a neighbouring uncle, asking him to tell me some proverbs, to which he replied: “asking me is like warming your hands with moonlight,” which is a polite way to refuse a request. I didn’t know what it meant so I went back home and asked my mother the meaning. This constantly reminds me to be humble, not over proud of what you already know because there is much more to learn.

2. The need to be seen and heard: 

After middle school, I knew that I needed to get out of the village and see the world (like many teenagers) so I decided to travel to a different province to study English at a training school, which was a life changing experience. I felt like I found myself there. Here, my voices, my opinions, my identity were all valued. For example, I would go home and collect interesting folktales from my village during the breaks and come back to school and retell the stories to my teachers and classmates in English. Many of them were fascinated by the stories. Seeing other people appreciate learning about my culture and language was the starting point of my language documentation journey. It gave me confidence as a person from a minoritized community.

3. My desire to understand: 

I was told by several linguists who ‘knew’ my mother tongue that “you speak Lavrung, that’s so cool.” As a teenager, I did not dare question this term “Lavrung” even though it did not mean anything to me. So I went on for two years going around and telling people with uneasy hesitation that “I speak Lavrung.” Later, I decided to study linguistics and took a class called Language and Power, when I came to the realization that this name was given to us by the first linguist who had written about it with little or no meaning to the local people. I appreciate moments like this when I am fully fueled by this journey of language empowerment. 

These reasons and stories are very personal and are quite different from the standard reasons for language revitalization such as to preserve linguistic diversity, cultural diversity and knowledge diversity. Languages are intimate entities that are unique to each community and its members in their hearts, so I believe individualized reasons are important foundations for everyone on this journey. 

What inspired you to preserve your mother language Khroskyabs?

I started doing fieldwork collecting oral traditions such as folktales and folk songs in my village at the age of 17. This was my “homework” during school breaks in my English Training Program. During these years, my passion for language and cultural documentation resonated with my English teachers Gerald Roche and Elena McKinlay. Together, we started a project documenting oral traditions in my village and I published an over 300-page long monograph called Warming Your Hands with Moonlight in 2012 as the final product. Inspired by the oral literature project, I continued to seek opportunities for language and cultural documentation. Later, carrying my love and passion for languages, I went to the US to study linguistics. Through this five year university life, I came to learn and know many people who are dedicating their entire lives to describing and protecting endangered languages. So I started doing my little contribution by writing a grammar sketch of my mother tongue, an honor’s thesis in how Khroskyabs people encode motion events in their language and doing revitalization projects such as short films, orthography development and a social media blog in my mother tongue.

Can you tell me about your journey from Tibet to the USA? In particular, how did you make your journey with the Endangered Languages Project?

At age 19, I questioned my ability to produce something like a book. The constant encouragement from my family, friends, and my English teachers at the time made me determined. I had the responsibility and capability to document Khroskyabs, my undocumented mother tongue. This ultimately fuelled my inner passion and thirst to pursue a higher education in the US. Throughout my five years of university life, I actively engaged myself in international conferences on language documentation and revitalization, Smithsonian cultural preservation projects and more. Two years ago, Dr. Anna Belew, the program manager for the Endangered Languages Project, reached out to me for an interview, which started my journey to become a language revitalization mentor with the project. 

What is your role as a mentor associated with the Endangered Languages Project?

I am one of the language revitalization mentors at ELP along with three other mentors. We talk to people around the world who are interested in doing language revitalization work and direct them to resources and connections they may need. We also just listen to their stories and find commonalities and differences to build a strong community of endangered language workers around the world where we don’t feel that we are all alone doing this job. As a mentor, I learn as much from my mentees as I give to them. 

How is the Endangered Languages Project working around the world? What is the future plan for South Asia? Especially in a country like Nepal where there are so many endangered languages?

All of our mentees come from around the world. It’s only been a month since the official launch of the program and I have already talked to someone from Nepal. She attended our launch event and scheduled an appointment with me right after. We are also constantly brainstorming outreach possibilities such as mini virtual coffee times with the mentors and publicising them using our own social circles as well as news media like this. We would appreciate any suggestions you might have on how to reach out to more people. 

In your opinion, what is the role and responsibilities of governments to preserve endangered languages?

I think governments have a duty to preserve endangered languages, not only the languages and cultures of the majority but also the minorities. 

What is your message to all youngsters around the world regarding strengthening endangered languages?

I strongly encourage the youths of endangered language background to take initiative rather than waiting for outside linguists and anthropologists. Reflecting back on these 15 years, I could not have come this far without the help I received along the way. I met many people who I provided inspiration, practical advice and more. So forming communities and finding people with similar interests is the key to success in anything you do. 

Yulha is available to provide mentoring in English, Amdo Tibetan, Khroskyabs, and Mandarin to anyone interested in learning more about language revitalization.  (Based on conversation with Narendra Raule)