Last-Minute Christmas Offer!

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I have just 20 copies of my book Endangered Alphabets on sale at 40% off–namely, $18 plus mailing. If you’re in the U.S., I can get them inscribed and sent out to you or a friend by Christmas; if you’re overseas, it might still get there in time if you move fast!

Head over to http://www.endangeredalphabets.com/?page_id=85 to order. If PayPal charges you the full amount, let me know and I’ll refund you the difference right away via PayPal.

All profits support the Endangered Alphabets Project.

Thanks!

Tim

Can You Identify This?

Photo by Jamie Kutner
Photo by Jamie Kutner

Our calligrapher/printer/artist extraordinaire Jamie Kutner was in a vintage store in Baton Rouge the other day and found this remarkable relic. She discovered it’s a blood chit–that is, a document that pilots would carry in World War II to alert civilians of their nationality in allied territory in the event of an emergency. The same message, usually to the extent of “I’m an ally, please don’t kill me,” would be translated in as many local languages as would fit on the swatch of fabric. They’d burn it if they crashed in enemy territory.

Apparently they were usually printed on silk, cotton, or later rayon. This one is silk on the front and cotton on the back. So, this document, and the collection of other related items in the display in this shop (photographs, maps, etc.), came from the estate of a WWII veteran who was stationed in China and Myanmar.

Here’s the question: what are the languages? We think we know two of them, but we could use some help. Please forward this to anyone who knows the languages of the region–within flying distance, that is. Here are a couple of closeups:

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BY THE WAY….

If you haven’t checked out the Endangered Alphabets site on Society 6, you should, for two reasons: (a) the carvings you may not be able to afford in the wood, so to speak, are available as prints, bags, iPhone cases, and so on, and (b) there’s a sale on right now! Free worldwide shipping + $5 off! Truck on over to http://society6.com/EndangeredAlphabets and click on the yellow tab on the top of the page!

The Java Place

The Java Place

Finally, my Java carving is up on the wall at Speeder and Earl’s on Pine Street in Burlington, my favorite coffee place.

It came about because I was exploring the wonderful Javanese traditional script, called Carakan. Not only are the letters themselves beautiful, but the script has features that we don’t have, such as the lovely flower-like flourishes at the beginning and end of a text.

First I had Marc Leone at Sterling Hardwoods make me a wonderful coffee-table with a Javanese inscription (Java/coffee/coffee table: get it?).

Then I realized that many of the coffees at Speeder’s, which is right next door to Sterling, come from Indonesia, and some indeed from Java–but almost nobody who comes in for their morning java stops to think that the word java comes from Java, where Java is, or even that it is an island within the country called Indonesia, let alone that the island has its own script, language, culture, and long tradition of writing.

So this seemed to me a great opportunity for the Endangered Alphabets to serve an educational function, in a whimsical and attractive way.

I carved the word “Javanese” (actually “carakan,” the word for the Javanese script) and painted it in an off-white acrylic to give the whole thing a coffee-and-cream palette. The result when up on the wall of Speeder’s this morning. (My thanks go to Emma the manager, for making this all happen.)

By all means come back at me and suggest other opportunities for public appearances of the Endangered Alphabets!

Tim

Lessons from Ottawa, Part Three: Numbers Don’t Lie

nature_storyBetween October 2-4, a group of some of the world’s top experts on indigenous languages met in Ottawa under the auspices of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Some of the research presented at the conference is of direct and urgent relevance to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Project, a collaboration of the Endangered Alphabets and the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. (The Endangered Alphabets Project is proactively interested in trying to reverse loss of indigenous language and culture; the Champlain College Publishing Initiative is helping to publish materials for indigenous language education.)

In particular the research presented in Ottawa addresses the benefits of trying to revive endangered indigenous languages, especially among children—very much what we’re trying to help achieve in Bangladesh.

I’m going to present a digest of this information in a short series of short posts. Even though much of the material is drawn from research in Canada, it applies to the efforts to support indigenous people’s education in Bangladesh, in the United States, and indeed all over the world.  

I strongly invite you to repost them, tweet about them, or print them out, roll them up and tie them to the leg of a pigeon—anything to get the word out about the importance of this endeavor.

I’m very grateful to the FEL for inviting me and the Alphabets to Ottawa. I’m especially grateful for extended conversations with Carol Genetti, DJ Hatfield, Tom Saunders, Joan Argenter, Chris Moseley, John Clifton, and Nina Doré.

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The next talk continued the theme of the importance of indigenous people learning and speaking their own language, this time analyzing a mass of data from all over Canada.

Leanne Findlay and Dafna Kohen, both of Statistics Canada, addressed several related questions. What exactly is a cultural education? Who is responsible? Who is involved? What contributes to a cultural education both in and out of school? And most importantly, what are the outcomes? FEL XVII_to_share 14

Warning: this is going to be a bit statistics-heavy, but those numbers and percentages make this post all the more solid and important.

First of all, any situation is bound to vary from one indigenous/aboriginal group to another. The more isolated the individual families, the less likely they are to sustain traditional cultural activities or traditional language.

Far more Inuit (87%) took place in traditional or seasonal activities than First Nations (77%) or Metis (74%). (The research was conducted into those not living on a reservation.)

The same pattern was repeated to an even greater degree in each group’s use of their own aboriginal language: Inuit at 72%, First Nations at 20%, and Metis at a mere 7%.

Another way of looking at the same disparity was illuminated by asking questions about daycare. Not only did Inuit children tend to attend daycare that promoted traditional values and customs (67%/26%/17%), but those daycares spread the disparity even farther in terms of whether they used an aboriginal language (66%/16%/6%).

Okay, so how about the effect that the children’s neighborhoods had on the children’s cultural upbringing? Once again the Inuit were most likely to benefit from cultural support from their surroundings (31%/17%/16%), but only on traditional Inuit lands. Once the children were outside Nanangat, the percentage dropped to 18%.

Their language is worth quoting: “Language is a particularly important cultural encounter, as it is a vehicle for transmission of cultural ideas and values…. Children who speak an Aboriginal language are more likely to engage in cultural activities, spend time with elders, and participate in Aboriginal early child development programs….”

What’s more, Aboriginal children who speak an Aboriginal language have been found to be more likely to look forward to going to school, and once at school they show stronger verbal skills (in expression, mutual understanding, story-telling and overcoming speech and language difficulties) and were also more likely to display what is called prosocial behavior (that is, kindness, politeness, willingness to help with or empathize with others) and less likely to suffer from hyperactivity and inattention.

Outside school, though, the community’s influence is clearly important. Taking part in community cultural activites is seen to have a direct effect on children’s verbal competence, and spending time with elder is associated with a rise in that same prosocial behavior.

For us in the Endangered Alphabets/Our Golden Hour/Champlain College Publishing Initiative coalition, this was more good news, another sign we are on the right track. We’ll shortly be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the next stage of translating, illustrating and publishing children’s books. We hope you’ll be there with us.

Lessons from Ottawa, Part Two: Total Immersion

Between October 2-4, a group of some of the world’s top experts on indigenous languages met in Ottawa under the auspices of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Some of the research presented at the conference is of direct and urgent relevance to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Project, a collaboration of the Endangered Alphabets and the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. (The Endangered Alphabets Project is proactively interested in trying to reverse loss of indigenous language and culture; the Champlain College Publishing Initiative is helping to publish materials for indigenous language education.)

In particular the research presented in Ottawa addresses the benefits of trying to revive endangered indigenous languages, especially among children—very much what we’re trying to help achieve in Bangladesh.

I’m going to present a digest of this information in a short series of short posts. Even though much of the material is drawn from research in Canada, it applies to the efforts to support indigenous people’s education in Bangladesh, in the United States, and indeed all over the world.  

I strongly invite you to repost them, tweet about them, or print them out, roll them up and tie them to the leg of a pigeon—anything to get the word out about the importance of this endeavor.

I’m very grateful to the FEL for inviting me and the Alphabets to Ottawa. I’m especially grateful for extended conversations with Carol Genetti, DJ Hatfield, Tom Saunders, Joan Argenter, Chris Moseley, John Clifton, and Nina Doré.

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Total Immersion Education in Indigenous Languages: What Good Does It Do?

 

A number of cultures across the world–including, for example, the Cherokee in the United States–are trying to revive their ancestral languages, both spoken and written, by starting total-immersion programs for young children.

Two common assumptions about immersion programs are that (a) they set up an opposition between the indigenous language and the national or standard language, and/or (b) they make it harder for the child to learn the national or standard language as they get older.

Both these assumptions turn out to be completely untrue–in fact, they are the opposite of the truth.

Sherise Paul-Gold and Starr Sock, teachers in the Eskasoni school system and Joanne Tompkins and Anne Murray Orr of St. Francis Xavier University, investigated the success of Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqi immersion programs in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and presented their findings at the FEL conference in Ottawa. (The Eskasoni First Nation is a First Nations band government located in Nova Scotia, Canada.)

In these schools, children start out learning exclusively in their traditional indigenous languages, then turn to all-English instruction in the 5th grade.

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One might assume that this would be a bumpy transition, with all kinds of educational stumbling and floundering at that age, and consequent difficulties in picking up English, and learning in English.

Far from it. A formal assessment of 81 children in the 7th grade showed that of the children who were reading below grade level, all of them came from an English-only background. By contrast, of the 15 students who tested above grade level for reading, retention, and comprehension, 14 were former immersion students.

In other words, learning initially in their own language had taught indigenous children a love of learning. This showed up in attitudes toward school, toward studying, and in prosocial behaviors such as kindness and helpfulness toward their peers. Teachers and parents reported that former immersion students even scored better on math and science skills.

Similar studies elsewhere have found similar outcomes when the indigenous language was French, Inuktitut (the predominant Inuit language) and even Maori.

Total-immersion schooling turns out to do a great deal more than improve the children’s fluency in their own ancestral language. Mind you, that fluency has a number of significant benefits in itself. For example: a study of Inuit children educated in Inuktitut found that they could solve complex mental problems by second grade, while other Inuit children being schooled in English or French were, by that age, already falling behind. Proficiency in their own language improves the individual and collective self-esteem of indigenous students.

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In Bangladesh, our colleague Maung Nyeu has already found anecdotal evidence suggesting that the three community-developed indigenous-language schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are having similar impacts on their students.

“In our effort, children are co-constructors of knowledge, that is, [they are helping to create] children’s story books. We have observed increased engagement in three areas, cognitive engagement, behavioral engagement, and emotional engagement.”

Instead of the documented 65% dropout rate by the end of 5th grade in the conventional Bangla-language schools, he reports that children are as eager for an education as the indigenous children in Canada.

“When you ask them what they want to be when they leave school,” he said, “they are now saying `I want to be a teacher.’ `I want to be a doctor.”

To learn more about the indigenous-language schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, click HERE.

 

 

 

Lessons from Ottawa, Part One

Christine Schreyer runs a workshop at which young and old learn their own newly-created Kala alphabet.
Christine Schreyer runs a workshop at which young and old learn their own newly-created alphabet.

Between October 2-4, a group of some of the world’s top experts on indigenous languages met in Ottawa under the auspices of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Some of the research presented at the conference is of direct and urgent relevance to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Project, a collaboration of the Endangered Alphabets and the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. (The Endangered Alphabets Project is proactively interested in trying to reverse loss of indigenous language and culture; the Champlain College Publishing Initiative is helping to publish materials for indigenous language education.)

In particular the research presented in Ottawa addresses the benefits of trying to revive endangered indigenous languages, especially among children—very much what we’re trying to help achieve in Bangladesh.

I’m going to present a digest of this information in a short series of short posts. Even though much of the material is drawn from research in Canada, it applies to the efforts to support indigenous people’s education in Bangladesh, in the United States, and indeed all over the world.  

I strongly invite you to repost them, tweet about them, or print them out, roll them up and tie them to the leg of a pigeon—anything to get the word out about the importance of this endeavor.

I’m very grateful to the FEL for inviting me and the Alphabets to Ottawa. I’m especially grateful for extended conversations with Carol Genetti, DJ Hatfield, Tom Saunders, Joan Argenter, Chris Moseley, John Clifton, and Nina Doré.

The new Kala dictionary is the source of great interest.
The new Kala dictionary is the source of great interest.

One of the issues facing the Chittagong Hill Tracts activities of the Endangered Alphabets Project is the question “How do you go about teaching indigenous people their own alphabet?”

The students of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative spent some time pondering this question and coming up with creative ideas, but let’s face it, we’re not experts in language instruction, nor in working with indigenous children.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when one of the first presentations I saw in Ottawa was by the renowned Christine Schreyer of the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, who had actually worked with an indigenous community in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to create an alphabet for their language, no less.

Her challenge was a little different to ours, but no less formidable. Six villages along the shoreline of the Huon Gulf in Morobe Province, PNG, speak the Kala language. They are fairly remote: in most cases one travels from one to another by boat. And the rapid change of language in PNG meant that the six communities (totalling some 2,000 people) speak no fewer than four dialects.

Why bother with such a small population and its language? Because Schreyer’s collaborator John Wagner had realized, as is the case with most if not all indigenous languages, “how fundamental the [Kala language] was to the transmission of entirely basic, never mind more esoteric, levels of ecological knowledge and related skills.”

It has been said that every person is a library, and especially in the case of endangered languages, when one person dies a library is lost. Conversely, each language is a library of that culture’s collective experience and wisdom. To lose a language is to lose a dozen libraries.

Rather than the specifics of the Kala language, I was interested in how Schreyer taught an alphabet to people some of whom, as she said in Ottawa, “had never held a pen.”  The Kala Language Committee held workshops in each Kala village where Schreyer led the group in associating sound to symbol, making special note of uniquely Kala letters such as “a-titi” (which means the letter a with a wave symbol on top). After reviewing the letters, the participants would put their new knowledge into book making.

She worked with the community to discuss its collective book-making priorities. Together they came up with the following sequence of priorities:

·               dictionary

·               storybooks

·               traditional mythological stories

·               traditional historical stories

·               local recent history and place names map

·               stories about World War II, an important feature of Kala history

·               song books

·               books about local animals

·               books about local plant and gardening practices.

In addition, Schreyer created an alphabet song, writing games, and book-making activities.

There was much more fine detail to the Kala experience, and many wonderful stories, especially about the collective experience of reading the dictionary together.

For my purposes, though, I had heard enough to be going on with. Back in Vermont, I’m about to gather the student gang and pore over Schreyer’s agenda–which, of course, the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts may want to revise. But the picture is clearer, and the endeavor a little less daunting.

 

Schreyer's team managed the feat of creating Kala storybooks on site. The day we're able to do something like this for the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be a day to be proud.
Schreyer’s team managed the feat of creating Kala storybooks on site. The day we’re able to do something like this for the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be a day to be proud.

Pictures from Tennessee

First of all, a sincere thanks to everyone at Eastern Tennessee State University who made my visit there such a pleasure, and such a success. This particular post, which is going to end up looking strangely like Facebook, consists almost entirely of photos by Lise Cutshaw, though those in the know will recognize Theresa McGarry, Heidi Ehle, Martha Michieka, and the work of Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, who hung the Alphabets beautifully in the Slocumb Galleries and also showed me that I have been pronouncing Baybayin, the Philippine script, incorrectly for the past four years!

So here goes with the gallery of gallery photos, and others. The ones of me presenting in the Ball Hall Auditorium have a tendency to look as though I’m about to leap on the front row of the audience and devour them whole. Rest assured no such unseemly behavior took place.

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After the gallery reception, everyone moved into the auditorium…

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And yes, it’s true: I pass the carvings out and let people handle them. In a world and an era of two-dimensional creativity, it makes a vast difference to be able to handle them, touch them, trace the letters with a fingertip.

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The Death of the Traditional Urdu Script

Terrence Sehr just sent me an article by Ali Eteraz on the decline and endangerment of the traditional Urdu script called nastaliq. It’s a great article, and it parallels what has been happening with both Chinese and Arabic–namely, the movement away from a script that embodies the movement of the human hand toward a simplified version that embodies the movement of the straight line and the computer keyboard. As such, it also abandons the idea of writing as art, thereby impoverishing our understanding of both writing and art. For example, Ali writes:

“There is one more reason why nastaliq matters. It is, literally, calligraphy become language. Until recent decades, young boys and girls in Indian and Pakistani schools carried around rectangular wooden board called a takhti. On these, using a bamboo reed pen and an inkwell filled with a little gauze to make the dipping easier, they practiced writing every letter of the Urdu alphabet with painstaking care. Then when the lesson was over they washed the ink off the board and smoothed the surface with a bar of stucco clay and started on the next lesson. I worked on a takhti when I was living in Pakistan. The earthen smell of a freshly washed and resurfaced board haunts me to this day.”

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I’m hoping that Ali, or someone else who knows Urdu, will send me a short text in nastaliq for me to carve….

Here At Last: Photos of the Incredible Balinese-Blessing Dining Table

Table square on

Yes, thanks to the wonderful photography of Tom Way, who even helped me carry the table up the impossibly steep and rickety staircase to his studio, you can finally see the dining table I started more than a year ago.
Here’s the story. When I moved into my rather anonymous little townhouse, I promised myself I’d populate it with good wood. And almost the first thing I did was to buy four planks of wonderful curly Vermont maple from Ernest Krusch up in Cambridge (Vermont, that is, not Massachusetts or England). Dave Wilson at Sterling Hardwoods milled and glued them, creating the tabletop, and I composed a short blessing, to wit:

Bless this food

Bless these people

Bless this table

That brought them together.

Thanks to the good offices of Alyssa Stern of Basabali, this text was sent to a priest in Bali, one of the last people on the island who can still write in the beautifully rhythmic and avian traditional Balinese script.

It took nine months for the text to make its way back. It took another month or six weeks to carve and paint the blessing into the tabletop. Finally, Nate Moreau made the legs and skirt in the maple-and-walnut combination that is becoming the trademark of the Endangered Alphabets furniture. It was entirely his idea to use a live edge–that is, the wiggly edge with the bark–on the skirt, and it looks perfect.

It’s true, we’re hoping people may order tables like this, perhaps with their own choice of text, to support the Alphabets Project. For now, though, I still can’t get over how well it came out.

The blessing
The blessing

 

Look at that live edge on the table skirt.
Look at that live edge on the table skirt.
Nice grain in maple and walnut.
Nice grain in maple and walnut.

Twin Chams

Here’s the latest Endangered Alphabets commission, a highly suitable wedding present. This is a gift for two people, recently married, whose initials are M and B. The carvings are in the wonderfully springy and energetic Cham script from western Vietnam, and the characters are as close as I could approximate to our M and B. (By the way, I am more than eager to hear from anyone who can read and write Cham.)

The photo also shows the wonderful autumn weather we’ve been having in Vermont, a blessing in itself.

Pay no attention to the Chinese character on the table!
Pay no attention to the Chinese character on the table!
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