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Queens College Professor Danial Kaufman Works to Document the World's Disappearing Languages

-- The Queens College Lab Where Kaufman Records and
Analyzes Endangered Languages Is Only One of a Handful Nationwide –

QUEENS, NY, September 3, 2019 – Languages all over the world are at risk of extinction; Daniel Kaufman, a professor of linguistics at Queens College, is committed to conserving them in New York City. Kaufman, who began teaching at Queens College in 2015, finds the borough an ideal location for his work. “As many as 800 distinct languages are spoken in New York City,” he observes. “Queens is the epicenter of that global linguistic diversity.” Words aren’t all that Kaufman is documenting. “Each elder speaker within a small language community will have unique knowledge of that language and culture that can easily be lost if it’s not passed down or recorded,” he says.

Around Jackson Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, we find large communities with origins in Nepal, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico, all of which happen to be among the most multilingual nations in the world. Within the Nepali community, we find languages such as Thakali and Mustangi, among many other endangered Tibeto-Burman languages. Within the sprawling Filipino community, we hear Pangasinan and Kapampangan, languages which are now rarely passed down to younger generations. In Rego Park, we find what may be the largest community of Bukhari speakers, the Jewish dialect of Tajik originating in Central Asia, a language which is now spoken mostly in diaspora. 

The census shows that Jackson Heights is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the United States; Kaufman thinks this area may have the highest linguistic density anywhere in the world. “There is one building where seven community organizations were housed in seven offices, each one representing a different Nepalese town and language,” he says.

Kaufman conducts part of his research on campus at his language documentation lab, one of only a handful in the United States. Here, students can borrow equipment to record languages spoken in their families and communities, which they then study applying scientific principles of linguistic analysis. Students are actively involved in the lab’s work. One student, Tysean Bucknor, recorded Belizean Creole, an under-researched language, and how it is changing across three generations of speakers within his family. Tysean, Kaufman adds, is now enrolled in a PhD program in linguistics and continuing the project through fieldwork in Belize. Another student, Tenzin Namdol, recruited her friends to contribute narratives in the Mustang language for the Voices of the Himalaya project, which Kaufman is involved in. This project has collected dozens of narratives documenting the linguistic diversity of the burgeoning Himalayan community in Queens and Brooklyn. Tenzin continues to recruit participants and help with translation and transcription of the recorded narratives. 

Recording languages is the easy part. “Real language documentation involves a lot of transcription, translation, and grammatical analysis,” explains Kaufman, who plans to create a public repository for all the language material collected through his lab. In addition, he is committed to understanding what happens to these groups in New York. “What aids them or prevents them from using their languages here?” he asks. “Do they face discrimination for using their languages? Do various dialects of a language blend with each other in the city, as we might expect in a melting pot?” While this work has been carried out for New York City Spanish by other linguists at CUNY, we know virtually nothing about questions of language choice and change among smaller immigrant communities in the city. 

UNESCO declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, notes Kaufman, who recently attended a conference in British Columbia entitled Let the Languages Live that brought together over 1,000 people involved in language revitalization from all over the world. “It was the honor of a lifetime to be invited as a presenter and a panelist to a language conference organized by and for indigenous people,” Kaufman says.
A native New Yorker, Kaufman earned his PhD in linguistics from Cornell. He has helped produce documentation for dozens of endangered and indigenous languages and is an expert in Austronesian, a language family found in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Pacific. Prior to joining the Queens College faculty, he co-founded the Endangered Language Alliance, a Manhattan-based organization with its own language documentation lab.

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