Saving languages from extinction

Brookings native works to preserve endangered languages of southern Mexico

BROOKINGS – Plant and animal species become endangered and then go extinct. Languages also become endangered and go extinct, but that phenomenon doesn’t receive as much attention as the demise of plant and animal species, according to Brookings native Susan Hugghins.

For her part, she has spent more than 30 years in Oaxaca, Mexico, working to keep alive three dialects of Mixtec, an endangered language and one of the original languages of southern Mexico.

Born in Brookings the daughter of the late Dr. Ernest Hugghins and Mildred Hugghins, she graduated from Brookings High School in 1973. She then attended South Dakota State University, where her father served on the faculty. She graduated in 1977 with a double major in sociology and foreign languages, German and Spanish.

As a student she was also an Air Force ROTC cadet. Commissioned when she graduated, she served on active duty from 1977 to 1981 in communications and electronics.

After leaving the Air Force in July 1981, she earned a master’s program in linguistics from the University of Texas (Arlington). She later joined Wycliffe Bible Translators, “which works with endangered languages around the world.”

“It’s more than just Bible translations; it’s also documentation and linguistics and literacy, helping (people) learn to read and write their language,” Hugghins explained.

By way of definition, Irene Thompson, in “About World Languages,” writes, “A language is considered to be endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children, and it is no longer being actively used in everyday life. A language is considered to be nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers.”  


Training readers, writers

With her background, Hugghins has found a vocation in working with endangered languages in Oaxaga for the past 31 years. Her work has involved “learning the language and then training the people to read and write their language. They’re the ones who write these stories.”

As fruits of her labors Hugghins showed off several colorful pamphlets written in Mixtec, “one of the original languages of southern Mexico.” The language breaks down further into three dialects and more than 80 variations within the dialects.

“These languages were there long before the Europeans ever figured out there was something across the Atlantic Ocean. They were there, of course for millennia, developing,” Hugghins said.

“Mexico is very linguistically diverse, and Oaxaca is the mother lode. That’s why we’re there and we need more linguists,” she added.

Oaxaca is both a Mexican state and a state capital, with a population of about 4 million in the state; 300,050 in the city; and 650,000 in the metropolitan area. Hugghins has gotten out into the rural areas around the city. Most of the population living there are subsistence farmers raising corn and beans.

She called the overall translating “a monumental task.” She shares it with a co-worker, a Scottish woman with a doctorate in linguistics.

“We’re translating the New Testament, but that’s not the only thing that we do,” Hugghins said. “We do the literacy and the linguistics and the training. It’s kind of a package to do it all together.”

However, one key goal she noted was “to make the Bible, God’s word, accessible in their native tongue. Right now they have it in Spanish.”


Endangered languages in South Dakota

One message Hugghins wants to convey is that her work is “part of the bigger picture” of work being done universally on endangered languages. Hugghins’ concern with endangered languages is much the same as the concern people have with endangered species of animals and plants.

“People get real excited about that,” she said.

Pointing out that there are endangered languages close to home in South Dakota, she cited Lakota: “It was here before English, which was imposed on them.”

She referenced a short piece in “The Lakota Language Consortium,” which reads: “Lakota is dangerously close to extinction. Recent linguistic surveys and anecdotal evidence reveals that there only 2,000 first-language Lakota speakers remaining, on and around the reservations of North Dakota and South Dakota.”

That is less than 2 percent of the total Lakota population. Today the average Lakota speaker is 65 years old. As they die, they are not being replaced by a new Lakota-speaking generations.

The transmission of the Lakota language started dropping in the 1950s. The challenge in reversing that trend is to create a new generation of Lakota speakers while there are still speakers to teach them.

The same endangered-language situation prevails for the Mixtec dialects.

“They’re minority languages. People prefer Spanish; they’re not teaching their kids (Mixtec),” Hugghins said.

As to North America, she added, “Most Native American languages have been wiped out. On the East Coast they’re gone.” But the outlook for remaining endangered languages in the Western Hemisphere may be improving.

“It used to be nobody cared about the languages; let them go extinct,” Hugghins said. “But there’s been kind of a movement through all of the Americas, including the U.S. and Canada, to try to revive some of these languages before they go completely extinct.

“The point is that they’re really dying out faster, just like the planet’s animal species. They worry about it. Well, we need to worry about this, too. And here in South Dakota, we’re right on top of them.”


Contact John Kubal at [email protected].