Saving a dying language

October 22, 2014

Scarlett Clothier-Goldschmidt is a 2014 Porter College graduate in linguistics who is pursuing her master's degree. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Over the last century, the Chamorro language of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam has come under assault. It was banned for a time by Japanese and American colonizers, and pushed out by the rise of English. Only about 45,000 people speak it any more.

But Scarlett Clothier-Goldschmidt, a 2014 Porter College graduate in linguistics who is pursuing her master's degree, is among those working to preserve this Austronesian language. Using the Chamorro New Testament, the 22-year-old is analyzing the language's syntax as part of a larger project by UC Santa Cruz linguistics professors Sandy Chung and Matt Wagers. An annotated corpus of the endangered language may soon be complete.

Gifts to UCSC support life-changing scholarships for outstanding graduate students like Scarlett Clothier-Goldschmidt. 

Clothier-Goldschmidt, a self-described nerd who asked for, and got, a fat, library-worthy dictionary for her 10th birthday, says documenting dying languages not only upholds cultures but allows linguists to better understand the possible structures of language and contemplate the universal properties of human cognition.

"If we don't document this language, we may make theories about cognition that could be wrong because we haven't accounted for everything," Clothier-Goldschmidt says.

The work fascinates Clothier-Goldschmidt, who garnered grants and scholarships in order to complete her education. While she is still deciding her career path, she says she has a dream of someday combining technology and linguistics in order to create an interactive tool that will help a wide variety of students who are struggling to learn English.

"I think the one-size-fits-all method used now (in ESL classes) is problematic," she says. "We need to make language education more specialized and therefore more effective."

Image credit: Chamorro-English Dictionary, Donald M. Topping, Pedro M. Ogo, and Bernadita C. Dungca;  c 1975, The University of Hawaii Press