Drive On to Preserve Native American Tongues

The revival of some nearly extinct Native American languages is being spearheaded these days by linguists who are reconstructing the languages and teaching them to natives.

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Native Americans are in a race to save their native languages from extinction. More than half of the 300 native languages that existed when the Europeans arrived are now dead. One study reports that by the year 2050 only 20 of these indigenous languages will remain. From San Francisco Nancy Mullane reports on efforts by linguists and tribal members who are struggling to resurrect one language.

NANCY MULLANE: It's a sunny winter Saturday afternoon. Not the kind of day you want to spend sitting inside a large box-like office in a nearly deserted business park. But for a dozen Native Americans sitting around four tables arranged in a circle, it's the chance of a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGE)

MULLANE: They've come to learn Coastal Miwok, their native language. The last fluent speaker of the language, Sarah Ballard, died in 1978 at the age of 96. But before Ballard died, a graduate student from UC Berkeley visited her and recorded her speaking the language onto cassette tapes, leaving an oral blueprint for others to follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH BALLARD SPEAKING NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGE)

MULLANE: While Ballard offers a clear sample of spoken Miwok, it's not an easy language to learn, even with the tapes. One student in the class, Joanne Campbell, tries to form the simple sentence, She is speaking. Everyone is quiet, listening to see if she gets it right.

(Soundbite of student JOANNE CAMPBELL attempting to speak Miwok.)

MULLANE: Using the recordings now archived at UC Berkeley's Language Institute and his own brief conversations with Ballard before she died, linguist Richard Applegate teaches the once-a-month class.

RICHARD APPLEGATE: I'm actually very self-conscious about being the white academician coming in and saying here's how it is. I don't want to do that. But that's my ethnicity though. You know, to the best of my knowledge I don't have a drop of native blood. So I make a point of really acknowledging any attempts people make to put a word together or a sentence together and honor that, because it is a big deal when people are coming back to make the attempt to learn the language.

MULLANE: But does having a non-Native teacher bother the students?

LINDA HARDIN: It did at first.

MULLANE: The student, Linda Hardin.

HARDIN: I think we all kind of felt that way, but oh, we feel so fortunate. I mean, I think this is why it's our favorite class, because I mean it's mine. You just feel so grateful and fortunate to be able to learn it.

MULLANE: In the 1700s, some 300,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 different languages lived in the area today known as California. Now only 50 languages survive, most with three to five speakers, some with only one, and none are spoken at home as a primary language. Leanne Hinton is a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley and a founding member of Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. She says there is now an effort underway to bring back these languages, a collaboration between Native American communities and language experts.

LEANNE HINTON: There's an old feel of applied linguistics, but now there's a new kind of applied linguistics which is using linguistics for purposes of language maintenance and language revitalization, and this involves all kinds of new skills for linguists.

MULLANE: Skills such as developing writing systems for languages with no written form and publishing dictionaries with illustrations. But the most important skill, Hinton says, is learning how to teach a Native language as a second language to a Native population, making it an oral language and making it possible for Indians to speak to one another in their language as soon as possible.

HINTON: People are beginning to re-form as communities, if not physical communities, then social communities, and as a part of the re-formation of their own sets of identity as individual communities, the language is coming back as a part of that.

MULLANE: Students from the Coastal Miwok class will meet up with other Native Americans for the Language is Life conference this March. The theme of the conference is that language renewal is the cornerstone to Native cultural survival.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.

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