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Palomar College to teach Luiseno language

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SAN MARCOS, Calif. ? Of the approximately 2,000 languages spoken in the world today, only about 200 are expected to survive the 21st century. Many of these are American Indian languages and the majority can be found in California, once one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world.

Several California Indian languages are hanging on by a thread, spoken only by a few elderly tribal members. Many of the 90 plus languages native to the Golden State have become extinct just in the last few years. For example the last native speaker of Kashaya Pomo, spoken on the North Coast, died just last year.

Now, for the first time, an effort is under way at a Southern California junior college to revive the Luiseno language.

Palomar College in San Diego County, with 30,000 enrolled students, has been offering informal lessons in Luiseno since last summer. Last week it decided to add it permanently to the school catalogue as a course taught for credit.

Palomar College Professor Linda Locklear, who works in the American Indian Studies Department, says the addition of the Luiseno language to the catalogue was prompted by the needs of the local populace served by the two-year college. Several Indian bands in San Diego County are historical Luiseno speakers, including the La Jolla, Pechanga, Pauma, Pala and Rincon.

"It is the mission of junior colleges to serve the local population and to reflect their needs. This college has had a presence in the Indian communities for years and this decision (to teach Luiseno) reflects that," says Locklear.

Locklear says the classes will be designed primarily for Luiseno tribal members though she also expects tribal school teachers, American Indian Studies majors and curious linguists to sign up as well. The decision is warmly greeted by the various bands of Luiseno. John Gomez, who works for the Pechanga Cultural Heritage Center, says that he is "very pleased" with the decision.

"I think it's a great program and it feels especially good to see a revitalization of the language," says Gomez.

The Pauma band has been working with applied linguist Eric Elliot who will teach the course. Locklear says an "applied" linguist is different from a "theoretical" linguist in that an applied linguist actually learns to speak the language rather than just study its grammatical makeup.

Elliot learned the language from Villaina Calac-Hyde, one of the last native speakers of the Luiseno language. He credits Calac-Hyde with providing inspiration for a project that has turned into a labor of love.

Currently Elliot teaches Luiseno at elementary schools and routinely travels to the Luiseno reservations to teach the language to young people. He feels he is already meeting with some degree of success.

"It's important to teach the language as young as you possibly can because language acquisition always works better with young children," says Elliot.

Elliot says that Luiseno has an important history that is often overlooked. He says it was spoken for thousands of years in Southern California and that it has an important history since European contact as well.

One important piece of historical documentation that has helped Elliot is a partial Luiseno dictionary published in Rome in the 19th century. It was written by Pablo Tak, a Luiseno who was captured by the Spanish and taken to Rome.

Learning and teaching the language are not the only factors involved. Though Elliot calls Luiseno a "beautiful and precise language" he grapples with the question of adequately bringing it into the 21st century.

One of these problems revolves around words and concepts not in evidence the last time Luiseno was widely spoken.

Languages around the world have a rich history of borrowing words from other cultures when there was no adequate Native word.

For example, in the 18th century the Luiseno borrowed the word "vaca" or cow from the Spanish with whom they first encountered the animal. It became the Luiseno word "paaka." Similarly, the north coast Pomos borrowed over 100

Russian words for new concepts in the early 19th century.

The technological innovations of the past century make vocabulary a daunting task. Elliot says he is trying to strike a balance and will try to use a native Luiseno compound coinage when possible.

For example, Elliot coined the term "Wasa'kun Mata'mtash" for "rectangle," since geometry was unknown to the ancient Luiseno. However, Wasa'kun Mata'mtash literally means "four times flat."

Elliot also says that he is also trying to adapt other native Luiseno words to the new concepts. This has been done effectively in Cherokee where the word for canoe, "jiyu" has been appropriated for the word "airplane." In an interesting side note, the Cherokee also borrowed the word "vaca" from the Spanish, turning it into "waca" for cow.

These debates occur around the world in both living and resurrected languages. English has borrowed freely from other languages and the idea of using only original English words is an idea only put forth by a few eccentrics. However, in places like Iceland and France, the governments have fought hard to wipe out foreign word borrowings.

Reviving dead or diminishing languages has met with mixed results around the world. It has been done effectively in Israel where Hebrew, dead for nearly 2000 years was revived. In Ireland, however, Gaelic is struggling despite the fact that the Irish school system requires all children to learn the language.

Elliot is not sure what the final result for Luiseno will be. In regard to Gaelic, Elliot concedes that the language spoken by Irish schoolchildren is not quite the same as that spoken by the surviving native Gaelic speakers on the westernmost fringes of that country. However, he feels that the fact that the language is spoken at all is important and says he feels mush the same way about Luiseno.

"If we just get a few kids to speak it and a few adults to be interested, then we've accomplished quite a bit. A few years ago no one was talking about reviving the language and now we've made it this far."