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Native Languages of the Americas:
Endangered Language Revitalization and Revival

Many American Indian languages are undergoing something called "revival" or "revitalization." What exactly, is this?

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To understand the terms "revival" and "revitalization," first you have to understand the current state of these languages. Linguists have a variety of grim-sounding terms for languages with few or no native speakers. A language which has no native speakers (people who grew up speaking the language as a child) is called "dead" or "extinct." A language which has no native speakers in the youngest generation is called "moribund." A language which has very few native speakers is called "endangered" or "imperilled."

Language revival and language revitalization are attempts to preserve endangered languages, and that is precisely what our website project is about. Of the 800+ Amerindian languages, five hundred are endangered or worse. Most of the others are in Central and South America; in North America only Navajo usage is increasing, and even the relatively "healthy" languages like Cherokee--spoken by 22,000 people--are threatened by low percentages of children learning the languages.

It is true that in the natural course of things, languages, like everything else, sometimes die. People choose, for a variety of valid social reasons, not to teach their children their own mother tongue. In the case of American Indian languages, however, the language drop-off has been artificially induced and precipitous, and just as with the human-caused endangered species crisis, it is worth doing something about it. Amerindian languages were deliberately destroyed, particularly in North America. In the earlier days of European contact, Indians were separated from their linguistic kin and resettled hundreds of miles away with individuals from other tribes who couldn't understand each other. Historically, this is the single most effective way to eliminate minority languages (for obvious reasons). Even as recently as the 50's, Indian children were being forcibly removed from non-English-speaking households and sent to boarding schools to be "socialized." They were routinely punished there for speaking their languages, and Indian-speaking parents began hiding their languages in hopes of keeping their children in their houses or at least making school life easier for them. The percentage of Cherokee children being raised bilingually fell from 75% to 5% during the US boarding-school-policy days. Other languages, with smaller userbases and no literary tradition like Cherokee's to buoy them, have died entirely. This was not a natural death. Existing linguistic communities do not normally lose their languages after losing a war, even after being conquered and colonized, the way immigrant groups do. The usual pattern is bilingualism, which may be stably maintained indefinitely (most West Africans have been raised bilingually ever since colonization there; so have many South American natives, where the linguistically destructive policies used by the US and Canada were never implemented. In Paraguay, for example, more than 90% of the population is bilingual in Spanish and Guarani, and has been for centuries.)

Now that the Amerindian languages of North America are in the precarious situation they are, though, simply leaving them alone will not cause their extinction trends to end. Once the majority of the young people in a community don't understand a language anymore, its usage declines rapidly. This is where language revival and language revitalization come in. Language revival is the resurrection of a "dead" language, one with no existing native speakers. Language revitalization is the rescue of a "dying" language. There has only been one successful instance to date of a complete language revival, creating a new generation of native speakers without even one living native speaker to help. (That instance was the reincarnation of Hebrew in modern Israel, and there were many extenuating circumstances associated with it.) However, there have been successful partial revivals--where a no-longer-spoken language has been revived as a second language sufficiently for religious, cultural, and literary purposes. There have also been successful language revitalizations, where languages in decline have recovered. It may sound silly and New Agey to say that the prestige of a language and the self-esteem of its speakers plays a pivotal role in revitalization, but it has been proven again and again. Navajo, for instance, was in steep decline until the 40's, when the language, once deemed worthless, was used by the Navajo Code Talkers to stymie the Germans and Japanese in World War II. With Navajo's validity as a real, complex, and useful language suddenly nationally acknowledged, its usage shot up, and today this language, once on the brink of extinction, is in good health.

By inspiring the younger generations to take an interest and pride in their ancestral languages, and by providing the means for them to learn it (something we hope this website can help contribute towards,) it is possible to reverse downward linguistic trends. The true revival of a "dead" language is something I am more reluctant to raise hopes about, but to revive such a language enough for children to have access to traditional literature, to use it for cultural and religious purposes, even to speak it as a second language in limited fashion? Certainly! Kids can learn Klingon or Tolkien's Elvish if it suits them, and they can just as easily learn Miami or Siuslaw. Latin, the most famously "dead" language of all, is learned by millions of schoolchildren well enough that they can read Virgil (or snigger over Catullus), and is used liturgically by Catholics worldwide. It may be true that once a language is dead it is dead forever, but some kinds of dead are clearly preferable to others. If the lost languages of the Americas can all be as dead as Latin, then, well, as we say in my own successfully revived ancestral language: dayenu, that would be enough.

Laura Redish.
March, 2001

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