Elder Speaker issues

James Crippen jcrippen at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 21 02:14:11 UTC 2008

On Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 6:09 PM, Terry J. Klokeid
<klokeid at victoria.tc.ca> wrote:
> The most significant problem we face in our language recovery program has
> nothing to do with technology, it is this.
> Our Elder Speakers had their language literally beaten out of them by the
> vile, criminal school system imposed by the British and later governments.
> They have started to speak again, but find it hard to do so. They speak
> their language to the linguist, but cannot speak freely to the Nation's own
> children, and young parents in the community. I can supply many anecdotes if
> you wish.
> How do we deal with this?
> How can we help our Elders to overcome the criminal way they were treated,
> to speak without shame,  and pass the Language on to the next generations?

One major issue that needs to be addressed in every instance is
whether a community is really motivated enough to try saving their
language from extinction. Dick & Nora Dauenhauer have published on
this problem, and I have some personal experience in other Tlingit
speaking communities. This is a covert issue because community members
may often say positive things in support of revitalization, but in the
end are unwilling to assist in any manner. I have the feeling that
many revitalization projects are in the same sort of situation that
the Tlingit effort is in, where there are plenty of people who talk
about revitalization, but nobody willing to commit the time and effort
for it to succeed.

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks & Richard Dauenhauer. 1998. "Technical,
emotional, and ideological issues in reversing language shift:
Examples from Southeast Alaska". Ch. 3, pp. 57-98 in "Endangered
languages: Language loss and community response". ISBN 0-521-59102-3.

Dauenhauer, Richard. 2005. "Seven hundred million to one: Personal
action in reversing language shift". Etudes Inuit 29(1-2):267-284.

Aside from Bill Poser's comment about education, another strategy that
is very useful is to encourage the use of the language in public
settings. What people often think of first is to use the language in
formal gatherings. I contend that this lends an air of archaicness to
the language, and that although the exposure is good, it's even better
to simply use the language in everyday public settings. People
speaking it at the store can do wonders for encouraging curiosity in
the community if the language is on its way out. Hearing it shouted
across a street, spoken on a bus, or used at a bar is a huge boost to
the legitimacy of a disappearing language. Informal use can be just as
beneficial as formal use. In addition, if the language is only heard
at funerals people quickly get the impression that it's associated
with the dead and dying, the elderly who are not long for this world.
That's not the feeling that people should have about an endangered

One other thing to help inspire elders to use their language is to
introduce them to one or two young children who can say a few things.
Even if the kids have terrible pronunciation and have only memorized a
few phrases, elders may derive powerful inspiration from hearing
children speak the language. One warning though, don't tire them out
too much with little kids because not everybody likes boisterous


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