Overseas duo throws language lifeline for Arawaks
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Keisha Josephs and Sheldon Noel
Keisha Josephs and Sheldon Noel

WITH a grant from the U.S.-based Endangered Languages Fund, Sheldon Noel and Keisha Josephs are on a mission to push for the revitalisation of the native language of the Arawaks/Lokono.
The Endangered Language Fund is a small non-profit organisation based in New Haven, Connecticut, which supports the endangered language maintenance and documentation project that aims to preserve the world’s languages while contributing rare linguistic data to the scientific community.
Speaking with the Guyana Chronicle yesterday, Josephs explained that while she was in the United States, mention was made of Ivan Cornelius, a Guyanese who resides in Wakapoa, and his efforts to revitalize the Lokono language.
His attempts were being made despite numerous challenges, including the lack of financial and human resources, which prevented an enormous impact. “Someone mentioned him and said he was really in need of help and money to continue with lessons in the [Lokono] language,” she said.
Successful attempts were then made to contact Cornelius via social media, Facebook, after which an application for the grant was filed by Josephs, who was supported by Noel.
Having successfully acquired this grant in mid-June, the duo then ventured to Guyana, arriving on September 14.
According to Noel, when they arrived in Wakapoa, they immediately commenced work on the project. He explained that Cornelius was presented with a laptop and a digital camera which were bought through the grant to aid in his work.
“He was taught how to take photos and videos to document his work because he teaches there; he has classes there after school on his own… Ivan is one of the persons of Wakapoa who wants to dedicate his time and limited resources towards revitalizing his language,” he told this publication.
But while this project remains a short-term one, Noel related that it is aimed at helping Cornelius to revitalize this language to the point where he would be able to acquire funding which will go towards what he is trying to do.
But this has to be done immediately, he said, adding that the reason for this is because most of the speakers of this native language are the elderly, which pose a threat to the survival of this Arawakian cultural element. “So they are at a point where they are losing their language and language is a part of their culture,” he noted.
Disclosing that most of the money from the grant was spent on the acquisition of equipment to aid in documentation, Josephs explained that the first step in the project was for them to set up a “foothold” for Cornelius.
The intention, they said, was not for them to “extract” knowledge from him and his people, but rather for Cornelius to contribute to the preservation of his language.
“So that was our first step of the project. The next step is finishing a documentary that I have started. I’ve been taking footage everywhere so hopefully we can make a story out of it and bring some awareness to some of the issues in Guyana, including the loss of language,” Noel said.
The duo also visited the community of Mashabo, where they met the Toshau and a teacher, and deliberated on what the struggles of the community were.
“We examined sustainability there and what is needed in that village. We spoke to a local teacher and a Toshau there so there are lots of other smaller projects that will be coming out of this project” they revealed.
Josephs, whose background is in language revitalization and Native American languages, is a current PhD student. She was born and raised in New York, and hails from African and Collonago heritage.
Due to her drive to explore her heritage more, she pursued this field, explaining that there exists currently, a special programme for native American students who want to work on their own language. This, she said, is due to the fact that numerous cases of language loss in native American tribes have been recorded over the last few years.
As a result, she noted, there is much need to assist in that area through language documentation.
Noel, who was born in Canada, is from the Dakota tribe – a native tribe in the United States, but he currently resides in Minnesota.
His area of expertise is in language revitalisation, supported by his teaching ability which is routinely practiced. Additionally, curriculum development work features in his list of capabilities, and he also lectures.


By Ravin Singh


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