They traveled more than 6,000 miles from the Tuva Republic, a predominantly rural region of Russia, to the United States in hopes of saving their culture from slow extinction.
The group of eight musicians and craftsmen speak Tuvan, one of more than a dozen endangered languages represented by native speakers at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington.
Festival coordinators expect more than 1 million people to attend the free event, which began Wednesday. It runs through Sunday and resumes July 3-7 with special concerts most evenings.
The festival’s program, “One World, Many Voices,” focuses on drawing attention to dying languages around the globe, bringing speakers of languages on the verge of extinction to Washington to explain the challenges to passing their linguistic heritage to younger generations.
“It’s dying because urban kids, they start to forget their language, our language, and even older generations, lots of people from Soviet time, they have lost their language,” said Tuva native Aldar Tamdyn, 38.
As he spoke, he worked with his hands to build an igil, a two-stringed, bowed musical instrument used in his traditional Tuvan throat-singing band.
According to Smithsonian curators, about half of the world’s 7,105 languages are reported as endangered.
Of those, 3,524 languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people each.
“These people are under a lot of social and economic and political pressure to abandon their languages and to switch over to global languages,” said K. David Harrison of the Smithsonian Institution.
Nearly half the world speaks one of the top 10 languages, which include Mandarin, Spanish and English.