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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Linguistics Prof Revives Fight to Save Indigenous Languages

by Alicia Wittmeyer The Daily Californian
credits: Turtle by Reiss

Turtle by ReissNative American schoolchildren in Wisconsin will be learning the history of the United States only in Ojibwe if UC Berkeley Linguistics Professor Leanne Hinton has her way.

Hinton testified before the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs earlier this month in support of S. 575 - a bill that would give long-term funding to Native American language "survival schools."

"These are languages that exist no place else in the world," Hinton said. "They're a part of what makes America America."

Native American languages are disappearing. Out of 85 indigenous languages in California, 35 have no speakers and the remaining 50 are spoken by only a few elders, Hinton said.

The survival schools immerse Native American children in their tribal language. All instruction - reading, writing and arithmetic included - is administered in their native language.

"We've found that teaching the kids everything in their native language is the most effective way of doing it," Hinton said. "If people aren't learning the language at home, they've got to learn somewhere, and school is the next best thing."

The long-term goal of the schools is to have students speaking the languages in their homes and as adults with their families.

Some of the languages, such as Hawaiian, grow widespread enough that they can eventually be spoken day-to-day in the community again, Hinton said.

The schools show no signs of hindering the students from performing as well in the English-speaking world either, Hinton said.

One Hawaiian contingent at the committee hearing described the successes of their Hawaiian language survival school, which boasts an 85 percent acceptance rate to colleges and universities.

One student will be attending Stanford this fall.

"These kids are all learning English at home," Hinton said. "They get the education they need to succeed in an English-speaking environment and in an English-speaking college."

S. 575 does not yet specify how much funding the schools would receive.

Only communities with sufficient numbers of native speakers of teaching age are able to run these survival schools, however. This means California tribes, which are very small and have very few speakers, will not benefit much from the funding the bill would provide, Hinton said.

Languages that have too few speakers left to set up survival schools rely on programs like the "master-apprentice learning program," where a single teacher is assigned to a student.

With these programs, enough young adults can learn the language to eventually set up small survival schools.

For Native American languages with no speakers left, tribe members look at documents written in their languages in order to learn how to use them.

Hinton hosts a biennial conference called "Breath of Life" at UC Berkeley to help revive Native American languages that have no speakers left.

"We have sound archives and paper archives on campus," Hinton said. "We invite California Indians to come learn how to use their languages."

S. 575 and Breath of Life are only parts of a Native American language revival trend that started in the 1960s, Hinton said.

The revival follows a long period of the US government's repressive language policy in the first half of the 20th century, Hinton said.

"The communities wanted something to be done," Hinton said. "These languages have been wrested from them by various means, and they feel like they have a right to them, and they want them back."

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