Assistant Professor of Religion, University of Hawaii
Your task has not been made easier by being undertaken in the USA. America is far kinder to new immigrants than to ancestral languages. More languages have died in a shorter time within the brief history of the United States than in any comparable time and space in human history. Most Americans accept that immigrant communities will continue to use a language other than English while that community continues to be fed by new waves from the outside. Once, however, that flow ceases, experience has taught us that the knowledge of any community’s mother tongue will fade, and often very quickly. Unless dramatic steps are taken, a community’s mother tongue will be lost to its children in a matter of decades. Even indigenous languages fare no better. Here in Orange County, prior to 1798, only the indigenous Gabrieleno and Juaneno tongues had ever been spoken. Both are now extinct. While there are many modern communities which do not use English or Spanish in the home (yet), the outlook for their languages here is not a bright one: the first generation speaks to their children in the ancestral language, these children will maintain a colloquial (rather than an educated) knowledge of their parents’ tongue; their own children, in turn, will understand the language only to a limited degree, and their children, the great grandchildren of the original immigrants, will be English monoglots. There are always individual exceptions and variations but the community pattern has proven to be nearly irresistible.
While none can dispute the value of having a single, common language over such a wide expanse, especially when that language is now a global one, must it always end this way? When a language dies, or a people lose contact with the language of their ancestors, a cord is severed which, with very few exceptions, is never to be mended. In practical terms, we lose touch with a large extended family because we cannot speak to them unless they learn our language. Less obviously, we have lost touch with the pattern of thoughts and ideas through which our ancestors understood the world: its colors and shapes, both of the seen and unseen, its organization of good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful and plain. It is not that we do not need to challenge the old, inherited ideas as understood by our ancestors, but what is there to challenge if we have lost the ability to understand them at all? Why should we become strangers to those places and ideas which helped make us what we are?
Knowing more than one language is, in many cultures, an expected accomplishment. Many Kannada speakers, while living in Karnataka, understand and speak
Beyond the general answers, e.g. learning more than one language, especially in a formal setting, is a kind of verbal math. The brain will be stronger, pattern recognition will improve, the understanding of one’s day to day language will be sharpened. This would be true of any language, a fact well demonstrated by centuries of students who were put through their paces in Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit. Knowing the language of where you come from, even when learned superficially, can be as important as learning the language of where you now live. Before I moved to Hawaii, I worked hard to learn the ancient language of those islands as well as the ancient place names: after several years of study, I was able to read its ancient literature. Even before I arrived there, my eyes were opened to Hawaii in a way that could not have been equaled by any other means. When I read Hawaiian authors in their native tongue (although I was still living in California), I saw Hawaii through their eyes, heard the ocean through their ears, felt the rains on their skin, and this connection, even though I am not Hawaiian, both in its joys and its pains, is one that can never be broken. Imagine if I were of Hawaiian descent, if Hawaii were my homeland, the center of my ancestors’ universe?
For most of you involved in Kannada Kali, teaching Kannada to your children could prove to be the key that unlocks many such doors for them, the thread that connects them to a place dear to you and which should be dear to them. Learning Kannada is beneficial for their academic growth and builds community connections here and in Karnataka. While others might not understand the value of such efforts, they too will certainly come to understand and respect the accomplishment. No adult is sorry that he or she learned a language, especially their ancestral language. Many, however, regret that their parents did not teach them their mother tongue and that they have lost those precious connections which only a knowledge of that language can foster.
Kannada Kali, you do a good work. Not an easy one, and not one which will be readily appreciated or understood. But I have seen the fruit with my own eyes, and when your children are able to see past youthful judgments, they will thank you (if they do not do so now) and only wonder why they did not do more.
Dr. Jeffrey Lyon was the invited guest and the speaker at the Kannada Kali 10th year celebrations. He graduated summa cum laude with MA and a PH. D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from UCLA. From the University of Hawaii, Hilo, he has an MA in Hawaiian Language and Literature. Over the years, his studies have included many courses in Hebrew Bible, Judaism, rabbinic literature, Syriac, Arabic literature, Latin, Classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Hawaiian.
He has traveled and lived in the Middle East , Greece and Italy. He has worked as a full time teacher of Bible. He has taught Latin at Antelope Valley College, in Italy. He has taught Latin, in Hawaiian, to High School Students of the UH laboratory immersion school, the first person to have ever done this. He has re-edited and computerized the entire course of 4 large volumes, 20,000 teaching frames, and thousands of images and sound clips. He has several prestigious and scholarly publications.