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Nathan Shelton '11 beside a motorcycle in the middle of the Chaco Forest in Paraguay.
Nathan Shelton '11 beside a motorcycle in the middle of the Chaco Forest in Paraguay.

Keeping a Language Alive

Pigs busting into bedrooms, buses getting stuck in the mud after torrential rains, and a lack of clean drinking water were just a few of the challenges Nathan Shelton dealt with this summer. Thanks to funding from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, he also got the opportunity to aid efforts to save the language of a community in rural Paraguay.

He worked with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, which strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots—the places on our planet with the most unique, poorly understood or threatened indigenous languages—and documenting the languages and cultures within them.

Shelton, a Sociology and Linguistics major, collaborated with indigenous scholar Andres Ozuna to organize and conduct recording sessions of the endangered language of the Chamacoco people. These people comprise an estimated community of 1,800 total native speakers of their language.

Shelton traveled with Ozuna into the Ishir community, which is about 900km from Paraguay's capital, Asuncion, and stayed there for five weeks to create the recordings and to learn and document what he could about the local culture. He also assisted Andres in a separate project involving the collaboration of the elders and leaders of the community in producing instructional materials.

After creating the recordings and field notes, Shelton went to work transcribing and cross-referencing what he documented to prepare them for use in a dictionary and to create materials for the use of the community.

Shelton learned how to interview, take field notes, and be flexible when plans change. He also gained knowledge about elicitation in linguistics and the difficulties of finding people to do work with in a new community.

He had to adapt as new work opportunities arose, often by chance. For example, he was generously loaned an office in Asuncion from an unrelated organization, who got stuck in the Ishir community during a five-day storm.

Some challenges Shelton encountered included adjusting to an inverted eating schedule, with breakfast being the largest meal of the day, and traveling in the Alto Chaco, which included motorcycle rides on extremely dusty roads and walking long distances when boats or buses were out of service.

The most difficult part of his project was coming to terms with the fact that determining a stable writing system, the greatest obstacle in revitalizing and preserving the cultural history and language of the community, was not something he would be able to do in four weeks with limited funds. Nor was it something that could be done at all without the total involvement of the community, especially the school system. “No one knows how to proceed making materials because no one knows if they can be written in a way that even can or will be used,” explains Shelton.

Shelton is deeply interested in language use and its social implications. “In West Virginia, my home, I have seen the stigmatization and division of people based on particular speech patterns," says Shelton. "These sorts of stigmas based on language use and other cultural practices are the bases of larger divisions in the society. I hope that by working on giving some legitimacy and attention to a language ‘on the edge,’ we can promote a broader, more inclusive cultural perspective.”

--Heather Harden '11

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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