Language does more than convey thoughts; it can transport people to another place and time. And that power has groups of foreign-language speakers gathering throughout South Florida in an effort to preserve their native tongues.
“Language is the main ingredient of our being and who we are,” said Paul Buster, a 60-year-old Seminole who said his elders at the Big Cypress reservation often spoke in Miccosukee, which has been passed down orally through the generations.
Their language is what they used to channel their emotions, protect their people from harm, and connect to their culture, he said. And he, in turn, passed the language on to his children.
But the number of people who can speak it is shrinking, said Buster, who now teaches Miccosukee to pre-schoolers and adults at an educational center on the reservation in Hollywood.
“If our children don’t learn the language it will die,” said Buster.
Across South Florida, people are working to keep their “heritage languages” from being forgotten.
At St. Andrew’s Lutheran church in Lake Worth, congregants enroll their kids in Saturday Finnish classes, which will resume next month. In addition, every Sunday, the church holds a service in Finnish at 9 a.m.
“There are a lot of young families who want to teach their children the language,” said Pastor Seppo Hartikainen at St. Andrew’s. He said Finnish can be heard in supermarkets, businesses and flea markets in the area.
The number of foreign-language speakers in the three-county region has jumped by about 7 percent since 2000, according to a 2007 census update. There are now more than 2.4 million South Florida residents who speak a foreign language.
“There is no replacing our native tongue,” said Nitin Vaidya, who speaks Marathi, an Indo-Aryan language. “Some of the childhood memories are connected to certain plays you saw in Marathi. Our language anchors us, it grounds us, it gives us that warm and fuzzy feeling.”
Vaidya is president of Maharashtra Mandal, an organization made up of families from Maharashtra, a western state in India. He said the community has about 200 families in South Florida.
When they host celebrations and get togethers, most of their communication is in Marathi. He also publishes a monthly newsletter in Marathi. And Vaidya and his wife Poonam said they speak to their son in their native language.
“Even if the kids don’t speak it, they know enough to understand it,” she said.
Al Lipton organizes a Yiddish Club, with about 20 members who meet at a community center in Aventura and the Sunny Isles Library.
“Yiddish is still a living language,” said Lipton, who formed the group about nine years ago. “It’s fun. We sing a lot of Yiddish songs.”
Raised in Philadelphia, Lipton said he learned Yiddish at Hebrew School. Some of the songs bring back memories of his childhood.
“I don’t speak Yiddish every day,” said Lipton. “But what I know, I don’t want to forget.”
Other foreign language speakers gather regularly at bars and restaurants and many now take trips together to events that center around their particular language.
Sandra Gordon, of Miami, founded the Russian Roundtable two years ago. She said she went on Google to find other Russian speakers in the Miami-Dade area and invited them to the group.
Since then it has grown from a handful of people to 300 members, who meet monthly in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
The group discusses books, arts and Russian culture.
“We needed a community network,” said Gordon, explaining that 95 percent of the members are native Russian speakers, with the others interested in studying the language.
Ana Roca, professor of Spanish and Linguistics at Florida International University in Miami, said the movement to maintain “heritage languages” began to take off in the ‘90s.
“It’s not just universities and academia but business people and families that are interested in not just maintaining minority languages but developing them,” she said.