Monday, September 10, 2007


It is a sad fact that Native American languages are disappearing rapidly. In California, for example, out of 85 indigenous languages, 35 have no speakers and the remaining 50 are spoken by only a few elders.

Of the 3 major dialects of Lenape, once spoken widely by pre-colonial tribes throughout modern New Jersey, Delaware, New York and Connecticut, only one remains. It is now spoken almost exclusively on reservations in Oklahoma and Ontario, and is largely forgotten by the two youngest generations descended from the Lenape tribes.

In North America as a whole, there are now only half the number of indigenous languages spoken by anyone as there were 500 years ago, when Europeans began to settle permanently.

In fact, indigenous languages are dying all over the world.

IPS reports, "Hundreds of languages disappeared from Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 500 years, and many of the more than 600 that have survived could face the same fate in the not-so-distant future."

Indigenous languages like Kiliwua in Mexico, Ona and Puelche in Argentina, Amanayé in Brazil, Záparo in Ecuador and Mashco-Piro in Peru, are just barely surviving, the result of their continued use by small groups of people -- most of whom are elderly.

"Every disappearance of language and culture is a great tragedy to humanity. When it occurs, a unique and irreplaceable human experience is extinguished," bemoans Gustavo Solís, a Peruvian linguist with expertise in vernacular and author of language studies of the Amazon region.

On the eve of European settlement of Australia around 250 Indigenous languages were spoken on the continent. Most of them have since been lost and of the remaining 50 or so only 17 (with a total number of 50,000 speakers) are regarded as viable enough to survive for another generation.

Currently, 500 to 600 of Africa's 1400 or so languages are in decline, with 250 under immediate threat of disappearing forever, according to a report by Unesco.

In Mozambique's the indigenous languages - the storehouse for the accumulated knowledge of generations is also dying. "Sons no longer speak the language of their fathers... our culture is dying," laments Paulo Chihale, director of a project that seeks to train Mozambican youths in traditional crafts.

Six Kenyan languages are extinct, five are seriously endangered, at least three are endangered and a number of others are potentially endangered, says Unesco.

The list goes on and on.

There are those who say, "So what."

Maurice Ragutu, a language teacher at the University of Nairobi, however, says it does matter. “Vernacular or mother tongue helps people to trace their ancestral roots, culture, heritage and traditions, which all help promote unity in a community."

Jared Diamond, an American physiology professor at the University of California, told the Dispatch On Line, the loss of language can mean the death of a culture.

"Languages carry the culture, the literature and the music of that particular community," he says.

Because language is the vehicle of culture, Diamond says, when a people lose their language they tend to lose their cultural identity and often end up demoralised, with a low image of themselves. This then has an impact on their ability to earn a living.

Robert Oduol knows all this too well. For him, the exit of his Suba ancestors has meant a loss of his cultural identity and history.

"Language is one of the cornerstones of any culture and society," Oduol told the Dispatch. "It cements the unique identity of a group, its history, and expresses that particular group's concerns and needs in its vocabulary.

"Sadly I don't have that," the father says, pointing out that he doesn't "have any Suba folktales to tell my kids".

The following is from Cultural Survival

The Endangered Native American Languages Campaign

“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures.”
—The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Problem:

America’s cultural heritage is in crisis. Our country’s first languages are dying.

If we don't act now, in the next 10 years, 70 Native American languages will disappear. Ten years after that, only about 20 of the original 300 will remain. Fifty languages are spoken by fewer than five people, all over 70 years of age. A single car accident could wipe out 10,000 years of cultural continuity.

Native American languages are not disappearing because they are obsolete. They are disappearing because of a US government policy to specifically terminate American Indian language. Under this program, which lasted until the 1950s, children were taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools where they were children were beaten and had their mouths washed out with blistering lye soap for speaking their language. With that background of brutality they did not speak their language in their homes as adults, so their children never learned it—the chain was broken.

But the remaining Native American languages can be saved. There are proven techniques that enable elders to pass on their languages to their children and grandchildren. Immersion schools surround Native youngsters with their own language and build fluency quickly and naturally. Native Hawaiians launched an immersion program in the 1980s, when there were fewer than 30 speakers of Hawaiian under the age of 18. Today there are 2,000 speakers in that age range. Other tribes have set up similar schools, with similar results. Others are teaching Native languages to adult learners who will then pass them on to their tribe's children.

Native Americans who learn their languages also gain significant side benefits: students perform far better academically, they stay in school, they go to college, and they bring social and economic benefits back to their communities. Children who have a strong native identity ensure their culture’s ongoing survival.

While some tribes have had great success in revitalizing their language, most lack the resources and expertise to set up effective programs. Unfortunately, those small language communities are the ones with the fewest living speakers.

The Solution:

Cultural Survival has formed a coalition of American Indian leaders and language practitioners to help the most critically endangered Native American language communities pass along the birthright of language to their children. Our goal is to raise public awareness, secure funds, provide technical support, get government backing, and create an online resource center for language teachers.

Together, we can save America’s cultural heritage, but we cannot do it without your help, and the clock is ticking. We need your generous support now, while there is still time.

To help click here!!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is imperative that the remnant who speak their language begin recording, teaching, and using. We celebrate 20 years of Hawaiian language immersion education in our islands this year; however, before that it was illegal to teach in our own language and our elders were severely reprimanded for speaking their language due to American policies of assimilation. We went from a literate nation to one struggling to meet educational standards today but Immersion Education provided an answer to language revitalization. I agree with the article that language is the cornerstone, foundation of a culture.