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Native American Tribe Races to Preserve Endangered Language

Posted: Jul 18, 2012

Convinced that discarding their language would be tantamount to discarding their identity, members of one Indian tribe recently donated $1 million to California State University (CSU), Fresno, in an effort to save their language from extinction.

The funds, which leaders of the Chukchansi tribe hope will allow linguists at the CSU to compile a dictionary and assemble grammar texts over the next five years, generated from the tribe-owned casino nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“When [the United States] began the genocide of Native American communities, the reason they allowed us to sign our treaties was because we had a language,” Kimberly Lawhon, education coordinator for the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, said. “Generations of our elders went through drought and atrocities; the core of our language is our identity.”

Jose Diaz, associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the Fresno school, said the grant would “speed up the process” already in motion at the school “to preserve an endangered language.”

“Before the grant, faculty members were volunteering on their own time with the Chukchansi tribe,” Diaz observed.

Research on the language started in the summer of  2009 when the Chukchansi tribe reached out to faculty linguists.

Agbayani, Chris Golston, and Niken Adisasmito-Smith are three of the main CSU Fresno linguistic professors currently working with the Chukchansi tribe.

A 2011 UC Berkeley survey of native Indian languages in California by UC Berkeley indicated that only a few fluent speakers of Chukchansi exist today.

“We were very lucky to be approached by a few Chukchansi fluent speakers,” Agbayani said. “[But even among them] a lot of the vocabulary is at the tip of the tongue. The more time we spend with them, the more we’re able to tap it.”

Two centuries ago, California was the most linguistically diverse region in the western hemisphere with about 90 native Indian languages spoken. Today, only about 50 native languages are spoken in the state — but just barely. Half of those languages have a scant number of native speakers, most of whom are in their 80s.

“Most speakers are semi-speakers” who remember their language, UC Berkeley Linguistics Professor emerita Leanne Hinton observed. “There’s a movement of language revitalization, with an increasing amount of second language speakers, and a growing number of families trying to use [their tribal languages] at home.”

Around the world, one language dies every 14 days, according to a study done by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which estimates that roughly half of the 7,000 world languages spoken today will disappear by the next century.

The movement to revitalize endangered languages is at high tide as students and schools across the nation are banding together to create Native American student groups and implement preservation projects. Hinton recently directed a Breath for Life workshop at UC Berkeley, where students and a linguistics mentor worked with a group of Indians to document languages.

But the effort is fraught with challenges partly because there is a scarcity of people who want to learn the language.

“The problem is that diversity in languages is so great in California that there aren’t strong programs where people can be fluent,” Hinton said. “Revitalization is pulled by the bootstraps, pioneered by individuals, organizations, advocates and living speakers.”

“We have a lot of people dedicating time and effort to teaching the language, but there aren’t a lot of adults dedicated to reach fluency of their language,” Lawhon said. “The biggest hurdle is getting our membership to devote themselves to learning.”

But Lawhon remains optimistic, saying that she’s even had “non-native speakers in the community come to learn the language.”

Chukchansi courses for kids and adults are taught predominantly by members of the tribe at Coarsegold Elementary School near their Rancheria. They will offer Chukchansi courses as an elective in the junior high class if 20 students sign up.

Even though the recent efforts to document endangered languages will provide records, the future of native languages, Hinton said, is in “revitalization, not survival.”

“There are two sides to language preservation,” Agabayani said. “One is to revitalize the language, encouraging their children to carry [forward] the language. The second is to document the language.”

Language research and documentation can only prevent endangered languages from complete extinction. The population of native speakers is shrinking, and researchers worry that in due time, all that will be left may be records.

Only a minute fraction of today’s 7,000 existing languages are indigenous, which Golston describes as “precious.”

When a language goes silent, knowledge along with it dissipates. Because speakers of endangered languages generally live near animals and plants, their language holds key to unlocking insight to nature.

“Languages don’t fossilize” like dinosaurs, Golston said. “We can still learn about dinosaurs [beyond their extinction]. When languages are not recorded, they’re gone forever. It’s becoming more critical as the number of native speakers dwindle into small numbers.”

“This may be the last generation of speakers,” Linguists Professor at CSU Fresno Brian Agbayani said. “We’re hoping that more tribes are taking action to revitalize their language, and I think it’s becoming a worldwide effort.”

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