Uköhsutha’

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

“Go fish.” The vibrant smell of freshly crushed Roma tomatoes and oregano splashes across the dusty kitchen, letting me know that it’s time to stir the red sauce for tonight’s lasagna. Silence. My opponent stares defiantly. How dare I insult her with such a base command? She knows what she’s supposed to do. “Go ahead and draw,” I clarify. “I’m just getting up to stir the sauce.”“Are we going to have spaghetti?”“We’re going to eat lasagna in a couple hours.” I draw the wooden spoon through the sauce several times and return to the table. She hasn’t drawn a card. I give up. “Do you have a queen?” We used to play rummy and poker, but as my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease has entered its advanced stages, those games have become hopelessly complex. At any rate, it’s easier to throw occasional games of Go Fish in her favor. When Nana was first diagnosed, I decided that I would become a medical researcher and cure Alzheimer’s, that I would save her personally. I quickly discovered, however, that (a) the ten years I would need to finish med school meant that I would be too late to help her, and (b) I had little genuine interest in neuroscience. If I couldn’t help her keep her memories, though, I could at least keep them elsewhere. I took to asking questions voraciously about her life and writing down everything I learned. To me, the most striking part of her story was her relationship with the Seneca language. I only found out a few years ago that she was a fluent speaker, and she couldn’t understand my excitement; as she put it: “There’s nobody to talk it with. Why learn a language you can’t use?” Still, I managed to extract the word for “thank you” (“niawë’”) and a promise for her to teach it to me someday. Unfortunately, as her Alzheimer’s progressed, she lost her ability to speak the language.Subsequent attempts to find another way to learn Seneca brought my attention to the waning of tongues that aren’t part of the “big ten” languages spoken by almost 40% of the world’s population. Society’s increasing economic globalization has been accompanied by growing cultural homogeneity. However, minority languages and the cultures they describe offer unique perspectives on the world and lend valuable insights to the fields of anthropology, sociology, and cognitive science. After researching the issue, I concluded that we urgently need to create a definitive catalog of the world’s languages, recording and archiving those facing imminent extinction. Languages endangered right now can still be saved if we focus on encouraging bilingual education, pro-diversity public policy, and language revivals. Studying at Harvard will provide me with the tools I need to help implement these measures and contribute to the preservation of endangered languages. Like our elders, we have relegated the world’s cultural diversity to the pages of history. Just as I don’t expect to cure Alzheimer’s, I know that I cannot singlehandedly reverse the decline in linguistic diversity. However, there is little awareness of this problem, and few measures are being taken to solve it. If the wholehearted efforts of an individual can prevent just one culture and its language from being uköhsutha’ — “left behind” — then I believe it’s worth a try.

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