Endangered Language Alliance


Xilonen program at LSA Health Center in East Harlem

Language and Health

A growing body of evidence connects the language and health, with one major focus of research on the health benefits of language mainteance and revitalization. For more about ELA’s communty-based participatory research with the NYC Department of Health — out of which the following programs have grown — read here.

Xilonen: Promoting the Health of Indigenous People Living in New York City Through Culture, Food and Language

Named for the Náhua goddess of corn and the personification of tender corn, baby corn and an abundant harvest, the Xilonen Project was a seven-week series of activities related to Indigenous cultures, with a focus on food, language and community. The intiative involved interviews to better understand the demographics and challenges facing this community of Nahuatl-, Mixtec-, and Mam-speaking mothers. Xilonen also addressed addressed food insecurity by providing a supportive environment for people to speak their languages and share recipes based on their culinary traditions.

Xilonen was held in collaboration with the NYC Department of Health and the Little Sisters of the Assumption Health Center in East Harlem. Read more here.

Indigenous Textiles Collective

The Indigenous Textiles Collective — a collaboration between ELA, the NYC Department of Health, American Indian Community House, Red de Pueblos Transnacionales, Endangered Language Alliance — aims to strengthen cohesion among Indigenous peoples in NYC, share and learn new traditional textile skills and potentially develop a new source of income from their creations. The sewing skills learned by participants in the workshops are now being used by them to create face covers that are being donated to other migrants and essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis.)

Read more here.

The Meso-American Lotería

ELA worked with community partners to develop a fun, beautiful lotería, a traditional Mexican game of chance that uses images — as a language learning tool for young and old giving written visibility to generally oral languages like Mixtec and Nahuatl. The creation of a game in Indigenous languages enhances parent-child interactions in a context where overworked parents may have limited time with their children.

See the Mixtec lotería here.

Interpreter Workshops

As part of ELA’s efforts to improve language access in NYC (and by extension elsewhere), the first-ever Indigenous Interpreters Workshop was co-organized in February 2020 with La RedFIOB, and CIELO, a community-based program bringing together dozens of intepreters of Indigenous Latin American languages in the Bronx for a weekend of training, discussion, and skill-sharing.

Indigenous Interpreters Workshop (photo courtesy of FIOB)
ELA Community Expert Maximiliano Bazan discusses language and health in the Mixtec community.

ELA research, as much as possible, is community-driven, participatory, and grows from the ground up — research for and with communities, rather than on communities, see our page of reports, talks, and publications.

For more about our community-based research initiative to document the languages and stories of Himalayan New Yorkers, see our Voices of the Himalaya project.

For more about our community-based language mapping work, see our language maps of New York City.

ELA has been the only NYC-based organization, as far as we are aware, to study the issues faced by monolingual speakers of Indigenous Latin American languages in New York. We have also carried out extensive interviews with various Indigenous communities on which means of communication are used most commonly for obtaining news and information.

ELA and the NYC Department of Health

Beginning with discussions in 2016, ELA partnered with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the first-ever study focused on the demographics, communities, communication, and health of Indigenous Latin American communities in New York.

ELA’s partnership with the Department grew out of an initiative entitled Proyecto Comunidades Florecientos (PCF), launched by Thelma Carrillo and Krystal Reyes of the Division of Family and Child Health, which sought to better understand and serve traditionally neglected segments of the Latino population in NYC. Our project aimed to go even further to understand the most marginalized segments of this population: Indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, who settled in New York in considerable numbers during a period of mass migration beginning in the 1990s.

Despite large numbers there is still no basic demographic information on these communities, nor can we find information about their livelihoods, experiences and challenges in the city, outside of anecdotal remarks and informal observations. Remedying this was seen as an urgent priority given that Indigenous Latin Americans appear to occupy some of the most precarious niches of the local labor market – construction, take-out delivery, and food preparation in kitchens and delis – and appear to be disproportionately underserved in areas of health, education, and other social services.

Following a participatory action research model, the resulting project was led by ELA-trained community experts, all members of 6 major Indigenous Latin American ethnolinguistic groups (Garifuna, K’iche’, Kichwa, Mam, Mixtec, Nahuatl) now living in New Yor and fluent in the relevant Indigenous languages. The community experts both played a key role in shaping the project and conducted the 30 in-depth qualitative interviews with members of the 6 communities that formed the core of the project.

These were some of the key findings: (i) Indigenous Latin American communities in the New York area are substantial and growing, but often remain dispersed, invisible, and without access to services, including translation and interpretation; (ii) Speakers of Indigenous languages are maintaining their languages in NYC to a degree, including through digital communication tools and transnational ties, but intergenerational transmission is faltering; (iii) Reported health challenges in this relatively young population, many with children, include diabetes, alcoholism, a worsening diet, and pervasive marginalization. Hundreds of pages of interview transcripts have been transcribed and translated, and a 50-page report prepared for NYCDOHMH.

More information about this work and key findings — and other related work, connecting food, health, language, and community — is being made public when possible. Project personnel have spoken about the project and its results at the NYC Department of Health, Memorial Sloan Kettering, major universities, and other venues

Djibrila Diane explains the IDNYC program in Mande — a language group spoken by thousands of West African New Yorkers in a video made by ELA and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs at NYC’s City Hall.

Everyone should have the right to critical services, from the hospital to the courtroom to the classroom, in their own language. While language access for speakers of larger languages like Spanish and Chinese has improved markedly in recent decades — although there are still substantial gaps — provision for speakers of smaller languages is often non-existent.

For the past decade, ELA has been working with city agencies, policymakers, researchers and communities to improve access to translation and interpretation services for vulnerable communities who speak smaller languages. While our capacity is limited, whenever possible, we connect government agencies — especially courts — who are seeking translators in less common languages with speakers who are part of our network. The largest translation companies are generally for-profit companies which use translators and interpreters, especially of smaller languages, as part-time, poorly paid independent contractors, ELA works to give referrals, make connections, and build capacity, without taking a cut, with the aim of improving the situation for speakers of smaller languages.

An important step in this direction came in February 2020, with the first-ever Indigenous Interpreters Workshop, co-organized with La Red, FIOB, and CIELO, bringing together dozens of intepreters of Indigenous Latin American languages in New York for a weekend of training, discussion, and skill-sharing.

Working with speakers and communities, ELA also frequents records public service announcements or translates materials into languages where no other information is available. For several years, ELA has been producing some of the only audio-visual materials in languages of Indigenous Latin American immigrants in New York, beginning with a series of short ¡Conozca sus derechos! (Know your rights) messages in Nahuatl, Mixtec, Me’phaa (Tlapanec), and K’iche’, which were the first of their kind and widely shared across legal aid organizations and other peer to peer groups.

On International Mother Language Day 2020, an opportunity to celebrate all of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, ELA and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs announced the release of a first-ever set of 15 official videos in Indigenous and minority languages for The City of New York. Messages were recorded (inside City Hall!) about IDNYC, the municipal ID program that serves over 1.5 million New Yorkers, a large number of them immigrants — in languages that, for the most part, have never been used in official city materials or been given this kind of acknowledgment. The 15 languages represented are from all over the world — from Indigenous Latin American languages like Mixtec and Kichwa to stateless languages like Yiddish, Fulani, and Tibetan.

Census message in Garifuna by ELA collaborator Milton Guity. Click in the top-right corner to see all the census videos, in a dozen different languages, made as part of ELA’s work to “get out the count”.

Part of ELA’s mission is to help give ignored communities a larger voice in the public sphere, putting our knowledge to work in helping reach the hardest-to-reach New Yorkers. Given our focus on endangered languages, we commonly work with communities that are virtually invisible, lumped together with larger groups for various reasons and usually not recognized as the distinct populations they are.

Census self-response rates in NYC, April 2020.

ELA has been working with the unprecedented NYC Census 2020 Complete Count Fund effort to ensure that these communities are counted in the decennial survey, which allocates funds and determines political representation for every city in the U.S. New York’s history of being undercounted is fueled in part by the city’s large population of immigrants, many of whom justifiably distrust government solicitations or don’t speak any of the languages in which the census is administered. In undercounted areas, insufficient resources and political power exacerbate the problems that these immigrant communities already face. To avoid another undercount in 2020, ELA is using various outreach methods to explain the importance of the census to speakers of small, minority, and indigenous languages.

ELA does census outreach in The Bronx.

Two of the biggest challenges in reaching out to the communities described here are fear and suspicion in the current political climate. As a consequence, many of those in the communities we are trying to reach have essentially gone clandestine. To overcome this, it is crucial that we reach out to communities not just in official state languages like Spanish but in the mother tongues that these communities use at home and with family. This is not only a matter of improving comprehension but of building trust.

As part of its outreach efforts, ELA has released 20 video messages and three audio messages recorded by our network of speakers explaining and promoting the census in over a dozen languages with no census support, including Indigenous Latin American languages: Garifuna, K’iche’, Mixtec / Tu’un Savi (Cuautipian), Mixtec / Tu’un Savi (Yuvinani), Kichwa (Ecuador), Quechua (Peru), and Me’phaa (Tlapanec). Other census videos in Tibetan, Nepali, Tajik, and Indonesian targeted national languages of Asia in which few if any census-related materials available. Speakers of these languages make the important case that an accurate count can improve resources for schools, libraries, infrastructure, services and political representation. Collectively, the videos received over 35,000 views across Facebook and YouTube and were shared widely in the relevant communities not only in New York but around the world.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ELA replaced plans to hold public events and canvass in person with heavier remote efforts like text-banking and phone-banking, specifically targeted to areas with low census response rates. With the global pandemic threatening the count, ELA continues to do everything possible to avoid an undercount of the diverse communities that define New York City.