Indigenous Languages: Preserving a part of culture

By Mark Snider

Nearly 40 percent of the world’s languages are endangered, according to Jenny L. Davis, assistant professor of American Indian Studies and Anthropology.

“New generations are not taught the language (indigenous languages) within their homes and learning institutions,” Davis said.

In an increasingly globalized society, many indigenous languages have given way to the world’s major languages, like English, Spanish and Mandarin. In response, Davis gave a lecture discussing indigenous language endangerment on Nov. 6.EJ

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    Davis said only around 175 native languages are still actively spoken, compared to the near 500 native languages that existed pre-European arrival. Out of these 175 existing languages, only around 20 of them may survive in the coming years.EJ

    Davis asserts that one of the primary causes of Native American language loss in the United States is due to the creating of boarding schools for Native American children.

    “Children were removed from their families, taught (only) in English, and this is what causes a generational break,” Davis said.

    According to Davis, families recognize that if they want their kids to attend school, gain employment and access services like healthcare, they will need to know the dominant language of the area.

    “People deeply consider what languages are needed to access these services,” Davis said.

    Currently, many revitalization measures are being taken to preserve these languages.

    “How you go about it (revitalization) is very context dependent,” Davis said.

    Davis said communities must decide where to focus these revitalization efforts. Communities must decide if they should focus on the adults, teach their children or incorporate a multigenerational approach.

    Some communities also offer a master and apprentice program where interested adults are paired with a native speaker for 20 hours a week up for up to two years.

    Communities also offer various programs such as fun youth activities, second language classes at local schools and universities, and community events. However, most of these programs are specifically located within the area of the language.

    Current multimedia tools are being used to aid in revitalization efforts. Davis explained that Twitter accounts, phone apps and web resources are utilized as a means for exposure for the indigenous languages.

    “People are using these platforms as a way to circulate these languages,” Davis said.

    Davis said language revitalization is even present in pop culture. In Assassins Creed 3, developer Ubisoft consulted with the Mohawk tribe to incorporate their language within parts of the game.EJ

    Language loss and the importance of language revitalization is seeing increasing awareness. Adam Yusen, a student in LAS who attended Davis’ lecture, said language revitalization is important because cultures are often tied to language.

    “Preservation of language helps keep cultures distinct from the dominant culture,” he explained. “When language is lost, it is much easier for the culture to blend into the dominant culture.”

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