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Oklahoma Schools Push to Keep Native Languages Alive

A story about Oklahoma schools fighting to keep alive Native American languages.

On September 13, the U.S. House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation to continue funding that will help keep Native American languages alive and spoken throughout our country’s tribal communities. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, first funded in 2008 and set to expire at the end of this year, has funneled more than $50 million into tribal language programs.

Impassioned sponsors of the bill understand the crisis facing Native American languages today. Many languages are endangered and could very well disappear in the next decade if something isn’t done to pass them on to younger generations.

According to UNESCO, there are 139 Native American languages in the United States—some spoken by only a scant number of elderly tribal members. UNESCO claims that more than 70 of these languages could die off completely within five years if immediate efforts aren’t made to preserve them.

Language advocates agree that it would be a tragedy to lose even one more Native language, as each language carries with it the rich history, values, wisdom and spiritual beliefs of a tribe. As one indigenous language instructor recently: “Our language is the number one source of our soul, our pride, our being, our strength and our identity.”

Oklahoma Schools Step It Up
According to the Tulsa World, six Native languages once spoken in Oklahoma have disappeared and 14 are endangered. In this state with numerous tribes and languages, there is a strong effort in public schools and some universities to keep Native languages thriving.

One survey says nine different Native languages are taught in up to 34 public schools, K-12, all over Oklahoma: Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee and Ponca.
Desa Dawson, director of World Language Education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, says 1,355 elementary and high school students in Oklahoma are taking Native American language classes this year as their world language requirement.

Why the intense interest? “We’re Oklahoma, for heaven’s sake!” Dawson says, adding that while students—both Native and non-Native—take these language classes to satisfy either a foreign language credit or as an elective, there are other things that draw them in: “It’s an opportunity for Natives who aren’t immersed in the language at home to learn more about their heritage; and [for] non-Natives [who] are surrounded by so many tribes here in Oklahoma, there is a natural curiosity about them.”

Dawson, who speaks Spanish fluently and knows a few Native words (for hello and thank you), says the biggest challenges facing language education in the schools are a lack of teachers fluent in tribal languages and a lack of language textbooks. “Teachers make their own materials, and sometimes tribes furnish what is needed in the classroom.”

She says several groups are tackling the first problem. The Oklahoma Native Language Association is working hard on the professional development of language teachers, and several tribes have created their own language-learning departments from within.

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One success story comes from the Sac & Fox Nation from Stroud, Oklahoma. Dawson says the tribe had fewer than five people who spoke Sauk, their native tongue, as their first language, and they were all more than 70 years old. The tribe started a special program in which aspiring teachers of Sauk were schooled by Native speakers 15 to 20 hours a week. As a result, four more teachers have become fluent in Sauk and a language program is being developed for the local high school to help grow even more speakers.

Start Young, Very Young
American linguist Noam Chomsky says the best time to learn a language is to begin at a very young age. During the first years of life, the critical learning period, children are developing language skills rapidly and absorb everything they hear because their “language acquisition device” is so active.

To this end, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma started a preschool language immersion program where young children who are just learning how to speak are taught and spoken to in their native tongue only. Enrollment at the Mvnettvlke Enhake immersion school is currently at six students, from 6 months to 3 years old, with 10 other children on the waiting list.

After the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma learned from a survey conducted 10 years ago that no one under the age of 40 was conversational in their language, the tribe kicked into high gear. It started a language-immersion school, which began as private preschool in 2001, where preschool and elementary students would hear and speak nothing but Cherokee all day.

The Cherokee Immersion School recently became a public charter school and now receives some funding from the state. The school made history this year when it graduated its first class of nine students.

The Old College Try
The University of Oklahoma, through its Anthropology Department, teaches four Native languages: Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Kiowa. The emphasis in these courses is on conversation, but students also learn to read and write in the language.

While Linn says these Native languages aren’t difficult to learn, the challenge comes in how often—and where—they can be spoken outside the classroom. “You do not get enough exposure to the language or enough time to practice speaking in 50 minutes, even five days a week,” she says. “It is not just a disadvantage to University of Oklahoma students learning these languages; it is why these languages are endangered.”

Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is doing what it can to keep languages in the state off the endangered list. Through the Department of Languages & Literature, students can earn a bachelor of arts degree in Cherokee language education that will prepare them to become teachers and speakers of the language.

At Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma, students can earn a minor in Choctaw through the English, Humanities & Languages department.

For students at Southeastern Oklahoma State University who are intent on becoming a Choctaw language teacher, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Department offers a full scholarship that includes tuition, fees, books, a living stipend of $1,500 per month, tutoring, testing fees, relocation-assistance stipend (if necessary) and laptop computer and printer. For more details, visit Choctaw­