Saving Endangered Languages: Presidential Scholar Ashleigh Cox

Georgia State freshman Ashleigh Cox wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about becoming part of a large, diverse student body. To her, that just sounds a lot like home.

In addition to her older brother Douglas, Ashleigh has five adopted siblings: an older sister from Honduras, an older brother from Romania, a younger sister from Bulgaria, and 9-year-old twins from the U.S. As if the Cox household wasn’t full enough, they’re also housing a family friend from Peru so she can attend an American high school.

“They just like kids,” Ashleigh says with a shrug when asked about her parents. “The first time they adopted, I was so young that it didn’t seem weird — it was like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, a little sister, why not?’ The second time I was like, ‘OK, it worked the first time.’ They needed a place to live, we have a good family, we’ve got room — I guess I’m just used to it.”

New Life for Obscure Tongues

With so many nationalities represented, the Cox family home can feel a little bit like the United Nations. Between that and the countries to which Ashleigh has traveled — France, Honduras, Jordan, Kosovo and Albania, to name just a few — she’s had plenty of exposure to different languages. That exposure helped her decide to major in linguistics at Georgia State, where she arrived this fall as a Presidential Scholar.

“I talked with some older professionals who have studied language and grammar,” Ashleigh says. “I learned that there are a lot of minority languages in countries where there’s a bigger national language, and a lot of those smaller lingual groups have never been analyzed. Many of them don’t even have verb charts or pronoun charts or things like that. When you don’t have a grammar system or an alphabet, it’s difficult to publish literary works, and it’s hard to share your culture with other people.

“The traditions can disappear in a few generations once the children start going to school in a different language. But if somebody analyzes the language — puts it in charts that people from other language groups can understand and makes a standardized alphabet and grammatical rules based on how people already speak — it’s easier for people to publish literary traditions in their own language and share them with others.”

Bringing People Together Through Language

Through the codification of simple grammatical rules, linguists can help save languages on the verge of extinction. This past summer, Ashleigh joined a family friend on a trip to Nigeria to help preserve one such language, Alis-i-Ron. The language is spoken by about 115,000 people in the central part of the country, but with very little written tradition, it’s so obscure it only gets six hits from a Google search.

“I helped her with verbs and pronouns, and we looked at lots of texts that had been written word for word based on how people speak, but not with any standardization,” she says. “We tried to help standardize it with three native speakers so they can continue sharing their culture with surrounding lingual groups.”

Ashleigh sees language preservation as more than just an academic exercise — she sees it as a potential way to bring different cultures closer together.

“If I could do something in a Muslim country, that would make me happy. If I went into a minority-language Muslim group that might not yet have a Koran in their language, maybe I could go translate the text of the Qur’an for them and involve a local mosque for community support — that could really help build a bridge with them.”

Global Learning, Local Opportunities

Ashleigh considers herself lucky to have found a well-respected linguistics program just a short drive away from her family in Snellville. “I applied to several schools that I’d read about and heard were good linguistics schools, and Georgia State was really high on the list,” she says. “I was surprised because it’s right here in Atlanta, not far from where I already lived. I liked that it was in the city, but not too far from my family. So it seems like a good option.

“I like the variety of classes I’ll be able to take here. For example, this semester I’m going to take French and Arabic, and I like that I can do that at the same time — I like having that freedom. I also really like the Honors College at Georgia State.”

The Honors College and class diversity helped tip Ashleigh’s decision in favor of Georgia State, as opposed to Georgia Tech, where her older brother attends. But she says he wasn’t too disappointed with her decision. “He lives in Midtown, so he’s just happy I’m moving close by,” she says. “I can even walk to his house from campus.”