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Native languages are dying

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GREENSBORO, N.C. - The Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) of Santa Fe, N.M. has found 175 active Native American languages in the United States, but of those active languages 155 may die within a few years, said Inee Yang Slaughter, executive director.

Among the tribes speaking the languages, the older generations continue to speak their languages but not the younger generation, she explained. Slaughter, who said she was Korean by descent, presented her work at a workshop of the National Indian Education Association convention here.

With a large grant from a private foundation, her group, founded in 1992, visited tribes from Alaska to the West and Midwest, doing field research with language surveys. Later, her group received a federal grant to continue the project.

About the recent grant, she said, "We visited over 55 language programs across the country. We couldn't visit all because of the time and federal grant. It was a grant funding situation, so we had to work within those limits."

Field survey researcher, Sheilah Nicholas, Hopi explained that in her research she heard many stories, feelings, and emotions about Native American languages. "It has always just been part of who we are. It's our identity."

Now ILI is working on putting together a handbook from the research gathered. "We are compiling handbooks that could be used in the communities about what things work out there, effective things that have worked which we have learned," Nicholas said. It will be published in the near future.

One of them is to have local tribal members conduct language surveys in their communities, so they can develop programs of teaching languages to children and to adults who want them.

"A language survey gets the community aware about their language and involved in the language effort," Nicholas said. "It serves as an invitation to the community to become part of the effort. They get to express their points of views about the language, what they feel about it."

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ILI research shows that many tribal communities want their languages taught in the homes by elders who speak the languages. The problem is, Nicholas said, "We don't have very much control, making sure that a program works in the home."

The next best place for tribal language instruction is in the schools, she said. "That's where a lot of our efforts are staring to be planned and developed currently."

Language surveys can help in identifying who is a potential teacher and who can be trained. They also identify people who want to learn the language. "It will take a lot of time, energy, and commitment," Nicholas said

Language surveys also help in identifying potential obstacles in a teaching program. "Language can become political in tribal communities," she said. Some want the language taught at home, others want it in the schools.

"Whether it belongs in the schools, whether culture should be taught, whether it should be written or not. These are the types of pitfalls we are talking about, because these take away a lot of time and energy from our efforts. These are voices in language surveys that give us the opportunities to start defusing tensions in cultural appropriate ways."

Nicholas said she has seen where elders of a tribe would speak the language with each other but if a child come up to them, they would switch to speaking English. "That's the decline of language users," she said.

Finished surveys can help in getting financial assistance for teaching of a language program, she explained. "Funding shouldn't be the only reason why you should start the program, but it is important. There are people who are committed to it and should be compensated."

Surveying for the teaching of Native American languages was only one of many workshops at the NIEA convention held Nov. 1 - 5.

More than 2,200 conferees from Hawaii to Maine and Canada gathered for the five-day convention. The keynote speakers were Dr. Maya Angelou, poet, author and professor at Wake Forest University of Winston-Salem, N.C.; Astronaut John Herrington; Attorney W. Richard West, director of National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; and David Wilkins, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.