KU News Service

Researchers author book chapter on revitalizing Native American languages

Tue, 07/16/2013

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.

Lizette Peter“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.”

Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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