Denver: Endangered languages of our ancestors can flourish again

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 28 13:04:21 UTC 2006

Via the edling-list

Endangered languages of our ancestors can flourish again

By Richard B. Williams

Indian Country faces a historically unparalleled affront to our cultural
survival. Of the 300 Native languages spoken at the time of European
contact, it is estimated only 20 of these languages will still be viable
in 2050. The rest will be irrevocably lost, and with them will go the
traditional knowledge that has sustained our people since time immemorial.
The impact will not be limited to Indian Country alone. The loss of
cultural, spiritual, medicinal and historical indigenous knowledge has
ramifications for all. If we continue to ignore these truths, this loss
will come to pass just as certainly as the sun continues to rise and set
in the sky. Yet, just as an eclipse shows us that sometimes the inevitable
patterns of nature can be altered, so do we have the ability to change our
future when it comes to saving our languages. But we cannot wait.

Fortunately, we are blessed to have the solution to language recovery in
our hands. Offered to us by our indigenous brothers and sisters from
around the globe, the language-immersion education programs developed by
the Maori of New Zealand and Native Hawaiians have shown us that we can
reverse the rapid loss of our languages. From them, we know that it is
possible for our languages to flourish again. Not that long ago, the Maori
and Native Hawaiians faced exactly the same scenario that we now face.
Fluent speakers had dwindled to only a mere handful of elders. Children
not only struggled to grasp their cultural identity, but they also
struggled to find success or meaning in education.

But then, a small group of dedicated parents started gathering to teach
their children the languages that they were unwilling to let die. They
gathered in living rooms, garages, backyards or wherever they could find
space. As people began to notice the children speaking their languages,
more parents flocked to these "language nests." With time, the living
rooms became classrooms and the nests became fully developed immersion
education systems. Today, Maori and Hawaiian speakers number in the
thousands. Children are no longer lost in the educational system. They are
unafraid to succeed and thrive. As one Maori educator told me when I
visited New Zealand in 2004, they are "fiercely Maori." I dream of a day
when we will have "fiercely Native" children succeeding at every level of
education, speaking their languages and knowing who they are and from
where they came. I believe in my heart that immersion education is the
path that will lead us there.

Language immersion education is the only effective method to produce large
numbers fluent speakers. Additionally, contrary to some people's fears,
language immersion education actually improves Native students' academic
achievement, rather than hinders it. The combination of mental acuity
developed by becoming bilingual and the academic confidence engendered
when Indian culture is embraced in the classroom has proven remarkably
successful for Indian children. Congress is currently considering Senate
Bill 2674, which, if enacted, will promote language immersion education
and provide much-needed funding for these programs. We must stand united
to support this bill. Still, my experience with the Maori demonstrated to
me that we cannot wait for Congress to sanction what we already know we
must do. We must follow the lead of the Piegan Institute in Montana and
the Akwesasne Immersion School in New York state, which have already begun
critical immersion work. We must support the fledgling immersion programs
at Colville, Gros Ventre and others to build their own language nests and
create new generations of Native leaders that will bring us out of poverty
and despair.

And we must all recognize that Native languages not only connect us with
our ancestors and our traditional ways, but also with each other. They
provide a window to the rich cultural heritage of Native people, a
heritage that is woven throughout the beautiful tapestry that is this
society as a whole.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list