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NSF grant to research how children learn an indigenous language in Mexico

Friday, November 14, 2014

LAWRENCE – To better understand how children acquire languages, a University of Kansas professor is visiting remote Mexican villages to study toddlers who are learning to speak a fading indigenous language.

Clifton Pye, associate professor of linguistics, received a three-year, $260,000 National Science Foundation grant to research how 2- to 4-year-olds living in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí acquire Northern Pame as their first language. The project is part of a larger effort through the NSF and National Endowment for the Humanities to document endangered languages.

Spoken by 6,000 people, Northern Pame is part of the Oto-Manguean language family. Dating back thousands of years, Oto-Manguean is the largest language family in Mesoamerica with 174 separate languages, a diversity that is comparable to the Indo-European language family.

Kept alive in small, isolated mountain villages, the use of Northern Pame, like many other indigenous languages, is rapidly declining. In some communities as many as 90 percent of adults speak the language, while only about 60 percent of children younger than 7 speak it. 

“Basically, we are ignorant of how children have acquired the majority of human languages,” Pye said. “And, this is critical now that so many languages are disappearing.”

In-depth research on how children acquire language has been conducted on about 30 of the 7,000 human languages, Pye said. Most of what linguists know on child language acquisition comes from English speakers.

Little research has been done on the child acquisition of endangered languages. That’s a particular concern for indigenous languages such as Northern Pame, where increasingly more children are learning to speak Spanish, Mexico’s majority language, rather than Northern Pame.

“Every time a language is lost, part of the world’s intellectual heritage is lost,” Pye said. “Not only can we see concepts at the moment of historical origin, but we can see how concepts develop and change through the history of language.”

A better understanding of how children acquire Northern Pame and other indigenous languages is important because these languages have significantly different properties than English. Learning how children master those properties can help researchers better understand the cognitive potential of humans.

For example, English words are strung together to form sentences. However, in other languages, such as the Oto-Manguean language family, sentences can be made up of complicated verb phrases.

Pye points to the Mayan language, which he has studied for 30 years. While English speakers use the same word for the action of breaking a cookie, cracker, stick or plate, the Mayan language has separate words for these actions. Pye said the distinction is similar to the two different meanings English speakers give to break and tear.

“We don’t realize how difficult it is for children to learn what those semantic boundaries are,” Pye said.

Part of Pye’s project involves developing new methods to study how children acquire language. Previous research primarily involved children who lived in cities and were able to come to laboratories for experiments.

That isn’t an option for the children who speak Northern Pame since they live in remote villages where researchers must understand the language and culture first. So, Pye has trained community members who speak Northern Pame. Once trained, they visit children at home, interact with them and record their language.

“The goal is to try and document that acquisition process as broadly as possible with minimum intrusion into the culture,” Pye said.

Another challenge is that Northern Pame doesn’t have a documented writing system. So researchers have to transcribe words based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. The hope is to create written materials that could be used in school to help children continue to speak the language.

Ultimately, Pye would like to connect how children learn Northern Pame to other Oto-Manguean languages.

“If we study language acquisition from just a few languages, we have a black-and-white picture of the acquisition process,” Pye said. “We are attempting to fill out the spectrum a little bit.”