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Special Report: Defying the Silence, endangered languages trying to hang on

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This series will explore the efforts of a few who have taken on the arduous task of preserving California's Indian languages and the unique problems and solutions that a small but dedicated group of individuals have undertaken to achieve this elusive goal.

Language decline is a worldwide problem. Of the 6,800 languages currently in existence, more than half are seriously threatened and some estimate that as few as several hundred will survive the 21st century.

Nowhere in the world is the problem as acute as it is here in the Western Hemisphere, where nearly 90 percent of the indigenous languages still spoken are under immediate threat of extinction.

Narrowing down the view, nearly all 50 of California's surviving indigenous languages are also under immediate threat, as most of these languages have dwindled to just a few elderly speakers and an additional 30 are already extinct. Perhaps most alarming is that not a single California Indian child is being taught their Native tongue as a first language.

Tribal languages have faced a long and steady decline since the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere some 500-plus years ago. Most linguists agree that even American Indian languages which still have significant populations that currently speak the languages, such as Navajo, with some 100,000 speakers and Cherokee; whose speakers number around 10,000; are in various states of decline.

Take Navajo, for instance, though it currently has the largest number of speakers of any indigenous language in the United States, most of those speakers are now age 35 and above. Less than half of Navajo children entering kindergarten can now speak their ancestral tongue, a very precipitous decline from just a few decades ago when a significant majority of children the same age had some degree of fluency.

This prompts some experts in linguistics to theorize that all American Indian languages are in some stage of decay and that a language like Navajo is just in an earlier stage of this decline, perhaps some 40 to 50 years behind the California Indian languages.

The reasons for the erosion are numerous; most modern American Indians have stories of parents and grandparents being shipped off to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their respective tribal languages.

In later years, the advent of mass communication via radio, television, films and other forms of popular information and entertainment have given a further blow to already reeling tribal languages, along with government urban relocation programs and English-only initiatives.

Though treated as second-class languages for years there have been on and off efforts over at least the past century to stem the tide of decline. Small, dedicated groups of individuals have been slowly and methodically working to save and possibly revitalize these dying languages. It is an arduous task and similar efforts around the world have met with mixed results.

For instance, though largely dead for nearly 2,000 years, Hebrew has been resurrected to become once again the main mode of communication among Jewish people in Israel. However, some linguists argue that Modern Hebrew bears scant resemblance to the classical form of the language; they still ultimately credit Israelis with largely resurrecting an extinct tongue.

Another success is Frisian, a Germanic language that is the closest language in the world to English, spoken in northern Holland is thriving after efforts by the Dutch government to save it by allowing and encouraging its use in schools and local government. Though never endangered, it was clearly in decline until such governmental intervention was applied.

On the other hand, the Gaelic language of Ireland, which is still spoken in some remote western parts of the island, has largely failed to take root among the general Irish population. In some respects the Irish situation closely resembles the current situation of tribal languages in America. After all, they were conquered by English speakers and similarly watched as their language went into severe decline.

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Though this does not bode well for those that are trying to preserve American Indian languages; many of whose total tribal populations are less in number than there are native Irish Gaelic speakers; creative and concerted efforts are currently underway to preserve indigenous languages.

Perhaps one of the central issues that needs to be addressed is why it is important to try and save these dying and in some cases dead languages. There does not seem to be a consensus among those involved in revitalization efforts; language preservationists generally fall into two camps.

In the first camp, Gary Dubois, the director of the Pechanga Cultural Resources center at the Pechanga reservation where a full blown effort to teach the language to tribal members is underway thinks that there is connection between Indian languages and the hard sciences, especially environmental science.

Dubois' reasoning is that since American Indian languages developed under specific conditions according to where they were spoken in North America, there is inherent value in studying the environment in which they were formed.

In the second camp, Dr. Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, while not dismissing this notion, certainly downplays the relation of language preservation for the sake of the hard sciences.

"I believe that it's more of a human rights issue," says Hinton. "People should have the inherent right to speak their own languages and the Native peoples of California had that forcibly taken from them and for that reason alone language preservation is important."

However, no one is disputing the importance of preserving languages for linguistic and historic study. Beginning in 1786 Sir William Jones, a British judge stationed in India learned the ancient Sanskrit language, a predecessor of modern Hindi, to learn the code of laws in that country. He found a series of remarkable similarities between Sanskrit and Latin and Greek and ultimately most other European languages.

Since then linguists have embarked on efforts to find a genealogy for languages and to group them into families. What Sir William Jones basically discovered was the Indo-European language family, all of whose members share a common ancestor from about 6,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter several other language families were identified, including the Semitic, which includes both Hebrew and Arabic.

In the last decade there have been serious attempts to group languages into even larger groups, one that could possibly connect Europe and/ or Asia with the Americas and possibly give clues as to prehistoric human migration patterns. For example, it is known that Navajo is related to languages spoken in northern Canada and, based on linguistic evidence, appeared to have settled in their current southwestern home in relatively recent times.

Because of the severe discrimination that American Indians as a people faced, their languages have been largely neglected from serious study until relatively recent times. Scores of American Indian languages, particularly along the eastern coastal plain were wiped from existence before a single word from those languages was ever recorded.

From the languages that survived long enough and were at least generally recorded by linguists, it is apparent that California has a veritable gold mine of languages, which feature representatives from most North American language families. For example, the Luiseno Language in southern California is part of the Uto-Aztecan languages that relates it to languages as far afield as Utah and central Mexico.

Some interesting mysteries emerge such as the case with the Yurok and Wiyot languages of the Northern California coast, which are part of the Algonquian language family whose main members are in the northeast and Canada. There is not another language in this family within 1,500 miles of the traditional territories of these tribes and surely their appearance on the West Coast provides some clue as to prehistoric human migration in North America.

(Continued in Part Two.)