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Tue Sep 25 13:57:43 UTC 2007
Faculty works toward preserving languages
By: Jeremy Hunt
Every two weeks, one of the world's 7,000 languages becomes extinct.
UNM faculty is working to keep American Indian languages alive in New
Mexico and trying to establish a center to help preserve them. "The
issue of language maintenance is not just some academic exercise,"
said Christine Sims, a professor in the language literacy and
sociocultural department. "These indigenous languages are spoken
nowhere else in the world."
The American Indian Language Policy Research and Teacher Training
Center would give tribes the support they need to preserve their
languages, Sims said. The center will hold workshops and help tribal
leaders develop curriculum to fit the needs of their people, she said.
Congress passed legislation with a $200,000 appropriation to fund the
center, said Rep. Heather Wilson, who introduced the bill. "We're
losing languages," she said. "With that, we lose culture and who we
The legislation is waiting consideration by the Senate, Wilson said.
Sims said there are about 20 indigenous languages still spoken in New
Mexico, and they are in danger of extinction.
Of those languages, there are three spoken only by older adults in the
communities, including the Mescalero and Jicarilla pueblos, Sims said.
When a language dies, so does the culture and identity of the people
who speak it, she said.
"The challenge, for the rest of us, is how do we make sure that
doesn't happen?" she said. "These languages can't be revitalized from
any one other source except within their community."
The only way to keep the languages alive is to have older generations
encourage and teach the youth to speak it, said Melissa Axelrod, a
linguistics professor who works with the Nambé tribe.
"A lot of people think all pueblo languages are the same, but they're
completely different," she said. "We have this incredible, exciting
diversity in New Mexico."
Axelrod said the University has a responsibility to revitalize
indigenous languages, because for a long time, educational
institutions discouraged American Indians from speaking their
"They would torture little kids just for speaking their language," she
said. "That was educational policy in this country for many years."
Sometimes, American Indians discourage their children from learning
their native languages, said Roseann Willink, a linguistics professor
in the Navajo program.
"Some parents are against teaching their kids because they had a hard
time growing up speaking a native language," she said. "The young
people are the ones that don't really care about it or don't really
have any use for the native languages."
Younger generations need to realize the value of their native
languages, Axelrod said.
Without their languages, they can't understand where they came from or
who they are, she said.
"You want to think about your own language," she said. "People in
other communities speak (English) differently than others. You look at
those differences, and you see something about what binds communities
together and how we use language to express our identity."
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