How Language-Speakers Are Central To Language Revitalization

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.

 

An important part of language revitalization is the language speakers themselves, for they are the ones who are responsible for their own linguistic renaissance and their language reaffirms their connection to each other, their land, and the country outside of their communities. Although there can be help from outside the language community, truly sustainable revitalization can only come from within the language community. This would be an important factor, as it would mean that the language, whether endangered or revived, is not only spoken at a gathering but in every speakers’ everyday life.

The linguists who are involved are merely there to guide the progress of the project. Just like in the case of Natalie Warner and her team of linguist working to reconstruct the Mutsun language indigenous to southern California, they joined with the Mutsun community to create language-teaching materials such as textbooks. The linguists also provide the technology purchased through grants in order to publish a dictionary, create a software for Mutsun speakers who live miles apart, and provide a database to preserve the original notes that recorded the last Mutsun speaker who passed away in 1930.

Since the speakers are the center of these types of projects, this would enable them to connect with any deceased community members who may have contributed to providing field-notes to any linguists. By revitalizing a language like the Okanagan language from the Salish language family, it enables the Okanagan tribe to reclaim their place on their ancestral land within the U.S. state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. What brings indigenous peoples and scientists together is the language and oral legends that may provide insight into any natural phenomenon that may have occurred. Indeed, a language is more important than for communication, for it provides, as Patricia A. Shaw of the BC Studies Journal would call: “…a seamless,tightly integrated, interactive symbiotic relationship between the people and the land.

So it would make sense that language revitalization can only be an organic phenomenon, not just as a way to have less reliance on outside help but also to give the speakers themselves a large degree of importance. It helps to shatter the identity crisis indigenous people feel, when they are neither white nor resembling their ancestor in terms of the language they spoke. In fact, the language would not be confined to the past and can be given relevance through media such as film, music, and video games. Bringing new speakers to the Salish languages, for instance, is a way of preserving the cultural identity behind the Salish nations.

As such not only does a language revitalization project require the language speakers themselves, but it also requires a diverse array of skills they may have, such as music, pedagogy, illustration, grant-writing, etc. Language speakers would need to congregate in order to transmit their language, either through developing conversational levels of fluency or learning the basics through word-based games. If they cannot do it physically, then they can do it through internet connection.

It also helps to create connections between the language-speaking community and the rest of the society that speaks a dominant language in terms of the language-speakers developing benefits of bilingualism and overall well-being. This was shown by Quechua speakers in Peru when given a Quechua-Spanish bilingual education. The students became less shy and more vocal in the classroom when their native language was used for instruction. By instructing in the native language, students would be more responsive.

This is why language revitalization is important as it brings entire families of speakers together. To paraphrase Rob Amery of the University of Adelaide, “The family and the home are among the last bastions of retention of a language.” The household is definitely the most important component of language revitalization, since children receive speech from their parents or guardians. For parents just learning about the language, it would be crucial, in the case linguist Daryl Baldwin trying to learn his ancestral Myaamia language, to have constant reminders of the translations of every object in the house, so sticky notes could be applied on them with the language translations. This is also why naming in the indigenous language is so important, as it asserts an identity that differs from the one imposed by colonization, just as Daryl Baldwin gave his children Myaamia names and Professor Margaret Noodin gave her children Anishinaabeg names. Linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann of the University of Adelaide makes the case that revitalization of indigenous languages increases communication between entire generations, which results in the decrease of suicide and juvenile delinquency rates.

This results in long-term benefits to the community and to the government that saves money. The rest of the dominant language-speaking society also takes part by preserving a part of their geographical culture. This is when the in-sight into indigenous languages shifts to linguistic anthropology. That is why studying the Salish languages means studying the place-names of Canada which have native etymologies, such as Musqueam, Kwantlen, Matsqui, and Chilliwack. Their indigenous lands are important since they relied on them for foraging and food-growing sites as well as providing a link to their oral traditions. When places have not retained their original names, the local governments and the indigenous communities often work together to rename towns and rivers, such as in the case of the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute which is responsible for renaming various locations in Adelaide, Australia to their Australian Aboriginal names.

The difficulties that can occur are when a language revitalization project does not have the funds to have fresh supplies, such as paper, pencils, erasers, electronic devices, ink cartridges, blackboards, etc. What donations demonstrate is that these types of projects can be limited based on any reliable funds. No language revitalization project is immune from this problem. When government grants are not enough, like in the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project’s case, the participants must find other means of procuring money. This is why crowd-funding can become a major component of language revitalization projects as it can provide the funds directly from the people who would benefit from these types of projects, as well as expand the contributions to include natives and non-natives alike.

It Is About Time The Field Of Language Revitalization Gets Its Own Graduate Program

As someone who received his undergraduate degree, it has been my goal to get into the field of linguistics in any way possible. Normally, I would settle with whatever degree would get me close to that goal (such as the Masters in English with a Rhetoric Concentration that I am currently pursuing), however, this piqued my interest, as I hope to study further into this underappreciated field.

It has been announced that the University of Berkeley has launched a new graduate program centered on language revitalization. Specifically it is offered as a graduate minor to Doctorate students. I will have to think about that when I reach that level. It is an interdisciplinary field combining ethnic studies with linguistics.

One of the students in this program, Sara Chase, has been taking advantage of this opportunity to revive the Hoopa language in her indigenous community. The Hoopa live in Humboldt County in northern California and their language is a member of the Athabaskan language family alongside well-known sister-languages Navajo, Gwich’in, and Apache.

Language revival has been talked about among academics, with the most notable being Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a professor from the University of Adelaide, who also has an online course dedicated to the subject. In the University of Victoria in Canada, there is a Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization that is available.

However, it is only in America that I am starting to see language revitalization taken more seriously. In the case of the University of Berkeley, it is the university that takes that field most seriously as it applies to indigenous American languages. Of course an exemption would be Swarthmore College, where linguist K. David Harrison, who produced the documentary The Linguists, teaches. Though there are no graduate programs specifically dealing with language revival.

Though, I could imagine that it would be difficult to pinpoint language revival as a topic reserved for an academic degree beyond a minor or certificate, because it is intricately complex, as it would not only involve studying and transcribing the language, but also about being an active part in teaching the language to the descendants of the speakers. This could be important for Chase, as she is pursuing a PhD in Education. It would also be important for anyone pursuing this field to know that multiple specializations would not only be accepted but needed in language revitalization, such as pedagogy but also music and programming.

Nonetheless, it is definitely a good way to raise awareness of these languages that are either sleeping or endangered. Nez Perce scholar Beth Piatote noted the importance they have to the speakers as well as the environmental and medical knowledge that they contain. These reasons are why language revival is such an important field to examine in a collegiate level.