Carnegie Mellon University
January 24, 2017

Linguistics Senior Works to Raise Awareness of Endangered Language in Mexico

Linguistics Senior Works to Raise Awareness of Endangered Language in Mexico

When Tess Harty was an undeclared first-year student in the Dietrich College in the fall of 2013, she was truly undecided and ready to explore the majors in the college. After her freshman year, she still hadn’t found the perfect fit, but she registered for Nature of Language for the fall of her sophomore year – and she immediately knew she had found her home in the Linguistics major.

“Language is a big part of everyday interactions. You get to see the things that you learn in class outside of class, even if you’re just talking with your friends,” Tess says. “You start to notice things that you didn’t notice before. The everyday stuff is the reason I find it so interesting.”

All of her experiences in Linguistics at CMU led Tess to the opportunity this summer to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of a Linguistics Field School funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The program consisted of two weeks of training at Haverford College and three weeks of community-based work on site in Oaxaca.

Tess’s team of five students from around the world was tasked with raising awareness of a family of endangered indigenous languages in Oaxaca called Zapotec. They spent the first week in Oaxaca working with local high school students.

“Zapotec is a family of languages that existed in Oaxaca before Spanish speakers arrived there, and we worked with three variations in villages that all speak different varieties,” Tess explains. “For our first week there, we conducted workshops with the high school students to get them writing in the language and translating presentations from Spanish.”

The second and third weeks of the project were spent working on building online talking dictionaries and an Android mobile application. Designed for high school students and young people to learn the languages, these resources list words in English, Spanish, and Zapotec. Tess and the other students on her team added words based on what they heard from local people, and consulted with several individuals from the differing variations of Zapotec, recording them saying the words to be played back later. Over 1300 word entries and almost 1000 audio files were added to the dictionaries in total.

Outside of the rewarding work she did, Tess also found time to enjoy the experience personally.

“All of the students on my team had very diverse backgrounds and levels of experience, and that was a very cool part of the experience,” Tess explained. “Everyone had different perspectives and we got to try new foods and experience new things together. We got to see several cool archaeological sites and there were festivals and small parades in the streets all the time. It was an exciting cultural experience.”

Tess completd the Linguistics major in December, and she also spent her four years playing the trumpet in the Kiltie Band – this past year serving as president. In the future, she hopes to do academic research, and focus on her interests in Linguistics and Computer Science.