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LIANE HANSEN, host:

If you drive on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation in southwestern Arizona, you may hear this language lesson on the radio.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken) - is it raining?

Unidentified Man #1: Let's try it again.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken) - is it raining?

(Soundbite of rattling)

HANSEN: That was the phrase of the day on KOHN, one of 33 tribal radio stations in the United States. Coming up: a report on why the Federal Communications Commission has approved dozens of new permits for such radio stations.

But first, to a dying tribal language. Five hundred years ago, Shoshone was spoken as far north as Yellowstone, all the way down to Death Valley. Now, few speak it, but efforts are underway to revive Shoshone, and young people are the key.

From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN: They came from reservations across the Great Basin, the dry plateau between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, and they came with a lofty goal: to revive a dying language.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: What rhymes with (Foreign language spoken)?

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2 (Foreign language spoken)

BRUNDIN: Every morning, 10 Shoshone youth practice their ancestral language in this airy classroom on the University of Utah campus. They practice with a sense of urgency. Once, Shoshone claimed an estimated 15 to 25,000 speakers. Now there are only 3,000 or so, most of them in their 70s.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BRUNDIN: Of the 155 Native American languages in the U.S., only 20 have serious language instruction for children. Lyle Campbell is the director of the Center for American Indian Languages.

Professor LYLE CAMPBELL (Director, Center for American Indian Languages): Most of the wisdom of the world is encoded in languages, and when we lose a language with no documentation, all of that knowledge, all that wisdom is simply gone irretrievably.

BRUNDIN: He says recovery programs like this one can help reverse that trend.

Unidentified Child #1: ID number 190714. Coffee.

Unidentified Man #3: Coffee. (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child #1: ID Number 193564…

BRUNDIN: Today, the students are recording word lists translated by Shoshone elders who volunteer their time. The recordings will form a dictionary for the reservations. The kids are also creating children's storybooks for the reservation schools, using Shoshone oral stories recorded in the 1960s and '70s. Recordings like this one.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SAMUEL BRONCO(ph): That's amazing. That's my grandma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUNDIN: Eighteen-year-old Samuel Bronco listens to his great-grandmother tell a story about a woman crossing a river to return to her tribe. He discovered her one of the early recordings. It was a wonderful surprise. He never met her. The young man with stylish spikes in his black hair laughs a lot. Like the other students, he got to go home for a long weekend during the course. Bronco remembers how shocked his dad in Elko, Nevada was to hear him speak Shoshone.

Mr. BRONCO: I walked and I would say, (Shoshone spoken). And he was, like, oh, (Shoshone spoken). And I was, like, huh. And he was, like, oh, my gosh. He was, like, what is this? And he was, like, pointing at a watermelon and I was, like (Shoshone spoken). And he was, like, ha, ha, ha, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUNDIN: But Bronco says it was also sad because he realized how much of the language his dad had forgotten.

Eighteen-year-old Stephanie Tabibian(ph) lives on the Duck Valley Reservation on the Idaho/Nevada border. She says it's discouraging how many grandparents find it easier now to speak in English.

Ms. STEPHANIE TABIBIAN: When you go to pow wows or when you go to sundance or sweats, you have to listen and you choose to do that. And it seems like nobody is trying anymore.

BRUNDIN: Linguist Katherine Matsumoto-Gray is the program's creator. She says young people like Tabibian and Bronco are vital to keeping the language alive.

Ms. KATHERINE MATSUMOTO-GRAY (Creator, Center for American Indian Languages): If we can't get to them to start using it, the other work, it won't do the job of keeping the language alive. We need the children.

BRUNDIN: The reality of that need became clear to student Stephanie Tabibian. In fact, she says the program has changed her life. Now she wants to study linguistics and bring a Shoshone curriculum back to her tribe. Originally she planned to study business and one day lead the tribe's business council. But she says somebody else can fill that role.

Ms. TABIBIAN: Someone will step in. You can even bring in a white man to do that. But there isn't going to be a white man who can speak your language, so I think that why I'm coming back. I think this is my meaning.

BRUNDIN: For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City.

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