Preservation of Native American Languages
The threat to Native American linguistic resources has become a major concern over the recent years. According to Littlebear, about ninety percent of Native American languages in the U.S are nearing extinction. The dominant Native American languages include Native Indian, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian. The existence of these Native dialects is threatened due to the small percentage of people still communicating in these languages (Littlebear, pg. 79). Littlebear describes majority of the Native American languages as moribund, that is, on the verge of extinction. He cites lack of interest in Native languages among the current generation as the reason for the decline of these languages. The current generation of Native Americans speak English while the Native language is spoken by elders of their communities. As a result, most of these languages may no longer exist in the next century. The main purpose of this paper is to highlight the factors that contribute to Native American language extinction such as demographic and economic factors and the influence of English. The paper on the thesis argument that preservation of Native American can be facilitated by encouraging inter-generational transmission in families and adopting oral based methods of teaching as opposed to the litany of methods that have employed previously which have not been successful thus far.
A regional survey of the U.S indicated that Native languages are spoken in only twenty nine of the fifty states in the United States. Hawaii is the single U.S state with one native language as opposed to others states with many individual native language speakers. The Native language in Hawaii has always been regarded as prestigious and important. However, in recent years, only elders of Hawaiian heritage seem to speak the native language, most of whom are above the age of seventy. A small percentage of the younger generation are taught their native language by their parents. The two dominant Native Alaskan languages that are still spoken in Alaska are Siberian and Central Yupik. Similarly, the situation is the same as in Hawaii where a small percentage of the current generation can speak the native languages in Alaska. In some parts of the United States such as the Pacific Coast, it is completely difficult to find native speakers. However, in Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi some Cherokee, Alabaman language and Choctaw is still spoken (Independent Lens).
The near extinction of Native American languages is attributed to the encroachment of Western influence which has caused language shift and loss among native communities. Western ways are held with high regard in social, economic and all spheres of the U.S capitalist society which has further led to the decline of native cultures and heritage. The U.S government made efforts to preserve the Native American cultures and language by passing the Native American Languages Act in 1990 identifying these indigenous cultures as independent and unique according Native Americans the right to have separate identities. Despite such efforts, Native American cultures continue to decline especially native languages. McCarty et al. propose that effective solutions ought to be implemented to save indigenous s peoples culture and languages. However, stabilizing and ensuring survival of these endangered cultures and languages is limited due to lack of knowledge, strategies and resources required to facilitate such initiatives.
The societal structure in the United States is diverse consisting if many native languages, both local and foreign. However, it is the native languages that seem to be facing extinction. It is common to find a Native American who lacks knowledge of his native language but has learned a foreign native language like Spanish or French. Littlebear cites attrition as the main cause of Native American languages extinction. There is minimal means for survival and spread of local indigenous languages in the U.S. For example, the spread of Native languages are no longer facilitated through generations by birth, as new generations are not being taught how to speak their native languages. Additionally, the non-indigenous languages in the United States are perpetuated by the influx of immigrants into the U.S. Most of the Native American Indigenous languages are spoken exclusively in the United States and therefore extinction would mean total eradication since these languages are spoken anywhere else in the world. Dialects may be similar to other languages but the uniqueness of a particular language will be lost upon extinction.
Language preservation efforts require the efforts of an entire community. McCarty et al. emphasize that language shifts result from changes within the communities facilitated by some external factors. The English language is considered one such factor. Native languages exist within the macro environment of the English language whose rampant use displaces other languages. Demographic factors such as migration from the indigenous communities will likely weaken the bonds that hold a community together, which includes minimal use of a language that holds a community together. For example, these demographic factors arise when people seek educational and job opportunities elsewhere. Also, migrations may result in intermarriages between a native language speaker and one who is not, in such households, a common language is likely to be spoken such as English. Demographic factors are sometimes facilitated due to conflict over land rights and reservations for most indigenous communities forcing dispersion and extinction. Finally, economic factors also contribute towards the decline of Native American languages. Interactions within the finance and commerce sector require proficiency in dominant languages like English. Most native communities practice agriculture in large scale for consumers. This required communication with trading partners. Most times, traders would learn the local languages in order to communicate with the Native Indian communities. Nowadays, it is the indigenous communities who have to learn English to communicate with their trading partners (McCarty et al. pg. 29-33)
Different methods have been put in place over the years towards preservation of Native American languages such as getting native languages in written form such as in dictionaries; training linguists in native languages; applying for federal bilingual education grants; teaching native languages in schools; promoting culturally relevant materials, among other initiatives. Despite all these efforts the preservation of Native American Languages seems to go on a downward spiral. McCarty et al. propose collaborating community efforts to help indigenous Americans to realize the importance of preserving their cultures and languages. Reversing the influence of English is one of the key ways of restructuring interest in native languages among the current generation. It is integral to eliminate the perception that learning English is superior to learning local dialects and the non-concern among Native peoples regarding the loss of their cultures and languages (McCarty et al. pg. 31). Littlebear advocates using an oral perspective to preserve native languages. Native languages have always been oral-based and therefore, it is integral to use the same perspective in teaching languages to the current generation. He emphasizes that Native people need speak their native languages repeatedly and adopt intergenerational transmission where parents ensure that they teach their children their native languages. Also, should the duty of teaching native languages be relinquished to educators and linguists in educational institutions, focus should be on oral based programs (Littlebear pg. 82).
Knowledge of one’s native language promotes preservation of one’s culture and shapes one’s identity and sense of belonging. Dialects consist of a network of cultural values, wisdom and heritage which help shape the psychological imperatives of the speakers. Preservation of native languages promote antiquity because every generation adds value to a particular language and therefore, preserving language preserves the cultural heritage of a particular community.
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Littlebear, Richard E. “Chief Dull Knife Community Is Strengthening the Northern Cheyenne Language and Culture.” Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 42, no. 1, 2003, pp. 75-84. Print.
McCarty, Teresa L., Mary Eunice Romero, and Ofelia Zepeda. “Reclaiming the Gift: Indigenous Youth Counter-Narratives on Native Language Loss and Revitalization.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 30, no.1/2, 2006, pp. 28-48. Print.
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