LAWRENCE — Around the world, more people are learning to speak English every year. While that may make international communication easier, it has also largely come with the cost of loss of other languages. Linguists have predicted that, without intervention, as many as 90 percent of the nearly 200 native North American languages spoken today could die within the next 100 years. A team of University of Kansas researchers has authored a book chapter on challenges facing native languages and ongoing efforts to revitalize them, based largely on their years of helping keep languages alive.
“American Indians at Risk: Volume One,” edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross, explores a wide range of problems facing American Indian communities including unemployment, alcoholism, suicide and language loss. KU authors Lizette Peter, associate professor of curriculum and teaching; Tracy Hirata-Edds, lecturer in the Applied English Center; and Marcellino Berardo, language specialist in the Applied English Center, authored a chapter on the latter topic.
“This chapter looks at language loss and revitalization in global terms. There are examples of language loss around the nation and examples of, among those that choose to revitalize, what they’re doing,” Berardo said.
Whereas the challenge of languages disappearing is widespread, the desire to maintain and revitalize them is far from universal. Languages, especially among American Indians, die out for a number of reasons, often political or due to native speakers declining in number and advancing in age. Many tribes no longer have children who learn the native language as their first tongue as English has become more commonplace across the country. The chapter, and the researchers’ everyday work, examines the reasons some have for not wishing to carry on their native language.
“The language has skipped at least two generations,” Peter said of Cherokee, a community she and her colleagues work closely with in revitalization efforts. “The elder speakers grew up in a time when it was considered really bad to speak Cherokee. They had experiences in boarding schools where their mouths were washed out with soap if they spoke it. They didn’t want their children to suffer the same way. Now we’re asking these same people to come into the schools and teach it.”
For tribes that do choose to revitalize and maintain their language, a whole host of other challenges invariably surface, and they are almost never the same among different tribes. The book chapter details such obstacles such as deciding who among native speakers should teach the language, who decides on correct pronunciation when there is disagreement, how new phrases should be coined, if certain dialects are “more appropriate” than others, whether recordings should be made, and if they are who holds the intellectual property rights and profits from them if they are sold.
In some cases, a written version of the language does not exist and those leading the revitalization effort must work with the community to develop the grammar, pronunciation and appropriate teaching tools to pass the language on to youth. In others a language is “sleeping,” meaning there are no longer living, native speakers, but documentation of the language does exist. The authors cite the example of the Miami of Oklahoma and Ohio and the efforts of community members who have learned the language from documentation and are now passing it on.
KU’s researchers, who work closely with colleagues from the University of Oklahoma and Northeastern State University, have done extensive work in revitalization and documentation with the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla. The tribe has had great success in implementing a total immersion school system in which the students use Cherokee exclusively. The approach still encounters challenges such as keeping the language instruction on the same grade level as instruction in other subjects and continuing native language instruction throughout the educational spectrum.
The Cherokee, cited in the chapter as a successful effort at revitalization that still has hurdles to clear, have been very forward thinking in their embracing of technology and involvement of both elders and youth in their work. The tribe has incorporated interfaces for Google, Wikipedia, iPads and other online tools in the written language, known as the Syllabary. They also broadcast their local school’s basketball games exclusively in Cherokee. There are, however, questions remaining on how the language should be used, whether it should be used only for ceremonial, traditional, religious, political, medicinal, cultural or other uses. The tribe continues to work on maintaining tradition while the language evolves.
“It doesn’t remove the young people from Cherokee in doing the things they want to do every day,” Hirata-Edds said. “They’re keeping the younger generation engaged.”
“These kids are creating a new language every day,” Peter added.
The KU researchers are all students of acclaimed anthropologist and linguist Akira Yamamoto, emeritus professor at the University of Kansas. While tribes must decide whether they want to revitalize their language and how best to do so, the reason why it is important to do so from a linguistic standpoint is clear.
“Each and every language is precious. With language, individuals form a group. With language, humans create a universe in which the relationship with their environment is established, nurtured and maintained. When we lose a language, we lose a worldview, a unique identity and a storehouse of knowledge.”