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Revitalizing Indigenous Languages: Why and How

Our Language is a Gift from the Creator
In the beginning, the different entities in Creation were given their own languages for communication—birds, animals, fish, for example. The Human Beings too were given their own languages to communicate within their different societies. Each society of people, or nation, on Mother Earth is comprised of the same components—a land base, a history, a government, an economy, an education system, arts (stories, songs, dances), amongst others. These components of the society are linked together within by a language common to that nation—that language being their "gift" from the Creator.

Language is Culture; Culture is Language
For a nation of people, with their language threading throughout the various components of their society, what exudes from that nation is its overall Culture—its way of doing things, its way of seeing the world (worldview), its way of believing, its values. As a result, when the nation experiences a "shift" in its language by the interjection of another language, the original Culture is correspondingly interrupted and skewed towards a new way of doing things, seeing things, and believing. This is effected change has been named "colonization."

Language Shift
The more that language shift occurs within a nation, the greater the resulting loss of language and culture. Language shift has been experienced today by virtually every indigenous nation in North America. However, the shift has not entirely been by choice but more as a result of forced policies from a larger and more dominant foreign society through its government, its education system, its economics, its religion, and other components of its society.

Reversing the Language Shift in Indigenous Communities
Throughout the United States and Canada in the past two decades, a growing number of indigenous people have been advocating, lobbying, and developing language revitalization programs in their communities. More indigenous people are becoming aware of the importance that their original languages play in the development and maintenance of respect and responsibility in their inter-relationship with other entities of Creation. By re-introducing the original language into everyday conversations and transactions, members can in fact reverse the language shift back from the dominant language. The continued daily use of the original language requires much patience, dedication and perseverance.

Language Revitalization: Best Practices
Communities are seeking to re-connect to their indigenous roots and re-establish their relationships through programming that encompasses the intergenerational transmission of their original languages. In indigenous communities today there is a stark realization of the fact that their aged speakers are passing away and there are no younger members remaining who speak the original languages. Therefore the goal of language programming is focused on increasing the number of speakers as effectively and as economically as possible.

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One of the best practices to avert further language loss while speakers still exist is to have the language spoken to the babies and toddlers on a daily basis as they are learning to talk. By raising the next generation naturally immersed in the everyday use of the original language, the development of mother-tongue first-language speakers will result, and this remains the most effective and economical method of teaching the language. It costs nothing to speak to a child in the target language and has been the method of language transmission that has kept the original language alive for thousands of years.

Another practice used today to produce speakers is through the immersion classroom. The daily exposure of the learner to the original language is a highly effective method for the development of second-language speakers.

The least effective practice to develop second-language speakers is through the language-as-a-subject classroom. The learner, in comparison, has only intermittent and fragmented exposure to the original language and is continually interrupted with long periods of foreign language use. This method of language-learning does not produce language speakers.

Language: A Renewable Resource
The heritage language has long been referred to as a natural renewable resource that needs nurturing to continue to grow. The indigenous language can be strengthened and prolonged by using it as a means of communication in a daily living milieu.

The survival of original languages today rests upon the shoulders of the remaining speakers to ensure that the next generation, and seven generations to come, continues to have the opportunity to experience the gift of their original language from the Creator.

Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, from the Wolf Clan of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation, is completing her PhD Indigenous Studies Program at Trent University; is an instructor in the Aboriginal Language ImmersionTeacher Program at Queen’s University; works as the Language Program Co-ordinator at the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community; and is Chair of the Language Circle in her home community.