Sustaining Endangered Languages

January 18, 2013

Amanda Nagy

Museum exterior
The National Museum of Natural History.
Photo credit: the Smithsonian Institute

At Oberlin, the period between fall and spring semester known as winter term is an opportunity for growth, reflection, and new experiences. Throughout the month, formal classes are suspended, and students have the option of completing a project of their choice for half or full credit. Regardless of the project, the central objective of winter term is to continue the process of personal and academic discovery outside the confines of a classroom.

Jena Mauldin, a fourth-year double degree student, is exploring her interests in museum studies and linguistic anthropology during a winter-term internship at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). There, Mauldin is taking part in the Recovering Voices project— an initiative led by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage—that promotes the documentation and revitalization of the world’s endangered languages.

Mauldin is pursuing a degree in anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a degree in musicology, with an ethnomusicology concentration, in the Conservatory of Music. Within the Recovering Voices project, Mauldin has a mix of administrative and programming responsibilities. She will also be involved in planning the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, a two-week workshop that will pair linguistics experts with Native American heritage language learners, teachers, and activists.

The Recovering Voices project aims to sustain endangered languages. According to the Smithsonian, some 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today, but cultural, political, and economic forces pressure many communities to replace their languages with those of the larger societies in which they live. Experts predict that by the year 2100, 90 percent of the world’s languages will no longer be spoken. The main challenge to linguistic diversity is the rapid decline in the number of young speakers and practitioners.

“This winter-term internship will allow me to explore the fields of museum studies and linguistic anthropology, two career paths I am strongly considering,” says Mauldin, who is from Long Beach, California. “I will also have the opportunity to build connections and meet professionals, which could lead to future research projects.

Mauldin has worked in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s academic programs office and print room and with the conservatory’s Selch Collection of American Music History. “Through these experiences I discovered that I enjoyed the process and never-ending nature of museum work. The sheer amount of latent knowledge within the walls of museums never ceases to astound me.”

Last summer, Mauldin interned as a curatorial assistant at the Smithsonian Folklore and Cultural Heritage Center, a unit of the Smithsonian that focuses on research and education. The internship provided experience in web design, editing metadata, and content creation for a range of cultures and topics.

“Not only did the summer internship provide me with marketable job skills, but I also had the good fortune to attend a career fair with people from different areas of the Smithsonian,” she says. “I met Joshua Bell, an anthropologist working on Recovering Voices, who offered me the winter-term internship.

“Above all,” Mauldin says, “I’m looking for a niche where I can be myself, where my passion can find an outlet. This winter term at the NMNH will open doors and possibilities that cannot be found anywhere else.”


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