While Native communities across Indian country have faced an increasing loss of language for many decades, 2006 has been a turnaround year. From new legislation to innovative technology to cooperation between tribes, a new hope has immerged for communities that are struggling to retain their ancient languages. Tribal community members have stepped forward to do what’s in their power to save their languages, and the theme of the year has been language preservation.
While the traditional ways of Native communities has been threatened since first contact by white explorers in the 15th century, the crucial turning point for language loss occurred during the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries when Native children were sent to non-Native residential schools. Schooled by non-Natives off Native land apart from the rest of their Native peers, children were forbidden to speak their Native tongue.
As those children grew into adults, their new language was English and it was that which they passed on to their children, believing it was best. A dramatic loss of Native language followed.
<b>Threat of extinction</b>
In some communities, it took just one generation of children placed in residential schools for the entire community to be on the verge of losing their language. At the turn of the 21st century, Native communities across Indian country faced complete language extinction, and in some cases only a handful of elders knew the language; with their deaths, the language died, too.
Such is the case with the Northeast Wasco language. This past summer, the death of Madeline Brunoe McInturff, 91, left only two fluent speakers of the Wasco language.
Smaller tribes are quickly finding that only a handful of their elders are fluent in their Native language and soon there will be no one if extreme measures aren’t taken.
In the past few years the need for language revitalization has become apparent to tribes across the continent, and in 2006 success stories brought new hope to desperate Native communities.
In central New York, the Oneidas contracted with Berlitz, a well-known education company, to teach the scarce language to adults in their community. Berlitz “took revolutionary steps” to find fluent speakers capable of teaching the language and had to travel to Canada to find them. A small community of Oneidas living on the Thames River was approached and two fluent speakers were flown to central New York to begin the spread of knowledge.
In the Akwesasne community along the northern New York border, an immersion program is teaching children in pre-kindergarten through the fourth grade the traditional Mohawk language by schooling them in a homelike environment. Children of various ages are kept in the same classroom and with several teachers in the room the language flows naturally and children pick it up just like they would at home.
Other communities have modeled their immersion programs after the Maori of New Zealand and have students – both adults and children – studying the language for up to eight hours a day. The innovative “language nest” has grown in popularity in 2006 as more and more individuals become willing to commit significant time to learning – and thereby preserving – their Native language.
The success of immersion programs has been criticized by some but praised by many, and early studies show that students in such programs excel in school.
“National studies on language learning and educational experience indicate the more language learning, the higher the academic achievement,” said Ryan Wilson, president of the National Indian Education Association. “Solid data from the immersion school experience indicates that language immersion students experience greater success in school measured by consistent improvement on local and national measures of achievement.”
The threat of language loss has at least one thing on its side: technology. With the rapid spread of new technology and engineering, language preservation might rely on the innovative explorations of the 21st century.
Such cutting-edge technology is currently making its way to assist the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. The Eastern Band of Cherokee received a federal grant this year (which it plans to match) that will enable it to buy “Phraselators.” The handheld computers will be programmed using the voice of a tribal member and will enable students in the community’s language immersion program to have English translated into Cherokee (and vice versa) with the touch of a button. Other tribes have also purchased the device, which was invented for military use.
Apple Computer Inc. has also been approached regarding the possibility of putting language learning software on its popular iPod – a handheld device capable of storing documents and audio and video files.
Smaller-scale technology has also flourished in language classrooms, allowing students to access compact discs or Internet databases for language exposure.
In the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, Quebec, an extreme situation called for extreme measures. There, the community of roughly 8,000 had just a few hundred fluent Mohawk speakers. So, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake emacted a law requiring the Mohawk language to be used in all education and business settings. Other tribes have taken similar approaches to do whatever was in their power to preserve a dying language.
At the national level, language supporters pushed for the House of Representatives and the Senate to pass a bill this year that would allocate education funding to immersion programs throughout Indian country. Their efforts were rewarded on Dec. 14, when President Bush signed into law the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, H.R. 4766.