Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

Our Endangered American Languages, by Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona Univ.

This article appeared in the Nov./Dec. 1999 issue of the American Language Review.

According to Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center there are about 200 different North American languages still spoken by the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada out of the total of over 300 spoken before the arrival of Columbus. These languages have survived suppression in boarding schools and catastrophic population declines.

The question today is how much longer will these remaining 200 languages survive. Children are no longer routinely being punished for speaking them in schools, but ironically they are not speaking them now that they can. Today, English language movies, television, and videotapes are doing what a century of washing mouths out with soap in boarding schools could not accomplish.

According to Krauss's research, only about 30 of the remaining languages in the United States and Canada are still being spoken by children. When children are no longer learning a language, the language is dying.

The United States Government in 1990 recognized its role in destroying these languages in 1990 with the passage of the Native American Languages Act, which made it federal policy to help promote, protect, and preserve them. In 1994 and 1995 the U.S. Government funded two indigenous language conferences at Northern Arizona University to bring together language activists and experts to discuss how indigenous languages could be revitalized.

A group of language activists have kept alive the efforts started at these first two conferences with a series of annual conferences, the publication of a series of papers, and a "Teaching Indigenous Languages" web site at on how Native American communities can work to keep their languages alive.

The six conferences held to date have featured a wide variety of presentations, ranging from marketing the value of Native languages, to implementing immersion teaching programs, to using Total Physical Response (TPR) teaching techniques, to developing indigenous language textbooks useful for children, and even to teaching languages over the telephone.

In the United States today there is an "English-Only" political movement that questions the value of teaching languages other than English, including indigenous languages. There seems to be the idea that not speaking English is unpatriotic, however the Flag Songs and honoring of U.S. military veterans at Pow Wows indicates that there is no necessary clash between keeping cultural traditions and citizenship.

Both the United States and Canada pride themselves in the freedoms that their citizens have. It is just as important that those freedoms include the freedom to be bilingual and to speak your Native language as it is to have the freedom to choose your religion.

Throughout the six conferences there has been a theme of how language and culture are intimately entwined and cannot be separated. The importance of cultural retention, and thus indigenous language retention, was brought home to me at the third conference in Anchorage, Alaska, when I picked up a card describing I˝upiaq Eskimo values. One side of the card read:

Every I˝upiaq is responsible to all other I˝upiat for the survival of our cultural spirit, and the values and traditions through which it survives. Through our extended family, we retain, teach, and live our I˝upiaq way.

The other side read, With guidance and support from Elders, we must teach our children I˝upiaq values" and then the card listed the values of "knowledge of language, sharing, respect for others, cooperation, respect for elders, love for children, hard work, knowledge of family tree, avoidance of conflict, respect for nature, spirituality, humor, family roles, hunter success, domestic skills, humility, [and] responsibility to tribe.

The card concluded:


I have kept this card in my wallet as a reminder that indigenous language revitalization is part of a larger attempt by indigenous peoples to retain their cultural strengths in the face of the demoralizing assaults of an all-pervasive modern individualistic, materialistic, and hedonistic technological culture. The card reminds me of why it is so important to do everything we can to help the efforts of any person or group that wants to work to preserve their language.

In the 1950s a school in the Navajo Nation had a sign at its entrance reading "Tradition is the Enemy of Progress," however as Navajo tradition and the Navajo language have been dying, the result seems to be the rise of anti-social juvenile gang activity rather than "progress." The strengths of Native American cultures that allowed them to survive repressive government policies in both the United States and Canada are being lost along with the cultural traditions and languages.


My experience working as a teacher and school administrator among tribes across the western United States is that the Indian students who only speak English do not do any better academically in schools than those who still speak their Native language. In fact, some research has shown that more traditional students often do better in school than more assimilated students who have lost their Native culture and its values.

The renowned sociolinguist and expert on endangered languages Joshua Fishman emphasized in speeches at the first two conferences at Northern Arizona University that schools can only have a limited role in keeping indigenous languages alive. Other symposium speakers and participants echoed Dr. Fishman's belief that the intergenerational transmission of language in the home from parents to young children is the key to keeping indigenous languages alive; however, schools can play either a positive or negative role in supporting the efforts of indigenous parents and communities.

The goals of the indigenous language conferences have been to:

1) To bring together American Indian and other indigenous language educators and activists to share ideas and experiences on how to effectively teach American Indian and other indigenous languages in and out of the classroom,

2) To provide a forum for exchange of scholarly research on teaching American Indian and other indigenous languages, and

3) To disseminate through monographs recent research and thinking on best practices to promote, preserve, and protect American Indian and other indigenous languages.

The seventh annual conference on "Language Across the Community" is scheduled for May 11-14, 2000, in Toronto, Canada. For more information contact Jon Reyhner Jon.Reyhner(at) at Northern Arizona University, Box 5774, Flagstaff, AZ 86001 or Barbara Burnaby at the Modern Language Centre, OISE/University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1V6.

"Republic policy can aid Irish in North"

A piece under this headline appeared in the Irish Times the day after our conference. Maith th˙, a hEoghain - also now one of our new Committee members!

Monday, September 20, 1999

A question mark hangs over the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland if the Republic "continues with policies of rhetoric rather than implementation", a conference on endangered languages has been told. Mr Eoghan McKendry, of the graduate school of education, Queen's University, Belfast, said the Belfast Agreement "has placed the Irish language firmly within the political agenda". Despite difficulties arising from an official policy since partition to marginalise Irish in Northern Ireland, the language had retained a relatively strong presence within the maintained (Catholic) education sector, he said.

"Indeed, when one considers the policy of `diversification in modern languages' which central government in London and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland have been promoting, Irish is one of the very few successes in the United Kingdom." Mr McKendry said the task of the Irish language lobby now "is to recognise those aspects of policy where it can claim success, such as diversification and the EU's policy towards linguistic richness and diversity, rather than succumbing to the negative policy goals of a previous political enmity or to simplistic views emerging from unsophisticated utilitarianism".

The current Nuffield Inquiry on Languages in the UK provided an opportunity to reappraise the role and position of Irish in Northern Ireland, he said. But the question was: "What can the Irish language become in Northern Ireland if the Republic continues with policies of rhetoric rather than implementation?"

Mr McKendry was addressing the third annual conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) - a UK-based non-governmental organisation - at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. The conference, on the theme "Endangered Languages and Education", was held amid expert predictions of the death of at least half of the world's 4,000 languages within 50 years, with Irish among those under threat.

"Right now, every week, another language falls silent for ever," a foundation spokesperson said. "With each one a living culture ends, a unique way of life almost thousands of years old." The FEL had taken up the challenge "to lessen the ignorance which sees language loss as inevitable when it is not, and does not properly value all that will go when a language itself vanishes". The conference, sponsored by Bord na Gaeilge, heard international experts tell of efforts to save minority languages.