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Tracy Hirata-Edds and Lizette Peter

R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Tracy Hirata-Edds, lecturer at the Applied English Center, left, and Lizette Peter, assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, work with Cherokee language documents in Peter's office. Both work to help maintain endangered languages and are former students of Akira Yamamoto, professor emeritus of anthropology and linguistics, a widely respected expert in the field.

Language in Danger

KU faculty work to revitalize endangered tongues

Many of today's Native American community members remember the stories of their grandparents attending government boarding schools and having their mouths washed out with soap when they spoke their native tongue. Generations later, the threat of the soap punishment is gone, but several hundred native languages vanished with it.

Worldwide, thousands of languages are in danger of disappearing. A number of KU faculty members and graduate students have been working for years to help communities save their endangered languages before they die completely, taking with them history, culture and entire ways of life.

"Essentially, one of the urgent tasks is to find, if possible, young and committed tribal members who are eager to learn the language, and pair them up with competent speakers."
Akira Yamamoto, professor emeritus of anthropology and linguistics

Akira Yamamoto, professor emeritus of anthropology and linguistics, came to KU in 1974 to teach anthropology and linguistics. For nearly 40 years, he has worked with a number of endangered language communities. Yamamoto, who retired last year, has worked primarily in Arizona and Oklahoma to revitalize languages such as Hualapai, which has about 1,200 speakers, and Yavapai, which has only about a dozen speakers remaining.

"They are in a crucial stage," Yamamoto said of Yavapai speakers. "Essentially, one of the urgent tasks is to find, if possible, young and committed tribal members who are eager to learn the language and pair them up with competent speakers."

The job can be difficult when the last competent speakers of an indigenous language are elderly. Even if they do find willing, young students it's not enough. Able, knowledgeable teachers who will invest the countless hours necessary to teach the language must be recruited.

WHY SAVE IT?

Lizette Peter, assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, began her career on the other side of the linguistic spectrum. She began teaching English and training English teachers overseas through the Peace Corps. Through her volunteer work she saw how English and other major European languages were forcing out many smaller languages around the world.

"It seemed to me that learning English wasn't necessarily the key to achieving economic sustainability," Peter said.

She enrolled at KU to study anthropology at the graduate level. She landed in one of Yamamoto's endangered languages courses and hasn't looked back.

Peter now works with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma as well as the Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina and the Indigenous Language Institute in New Mexico to help preserve the language. Before that task can be accomplished, the fact the language is endangered had to be acknowledged.

"I've heard Native Americans say ‘What's the point? This language never served us well in the White man's world. English is the only way we can compete in the world,'" Peter said.

Over the years, the Cherokee community has fully embraced the benefit of saving their language, Peter said, but their work is nowhere near completion.

DOCUMENTATION

How does one study a language that has never been committed to paper? That is one of the central challenges of those working to preserve endangered languages. Yamamoto has worked with several indigenous communities to develop written forms of their languages. Finding speakers who are bilingual in the native tongue and English and working with them to develop a new written system is the key. In some cases, the phonetic alphabet can be used to form a new written language. In others, the native tongue may have a clear syllable structure, and using a syllable-based system, such as Cherokee, is preferred.

Fortunately, writing is not the only way to save a language.

"I think we have much better ways of documenting languages now than just writing it. Writing is important, but technology has helped us record the spoken voice in action and preserve it in many different ways," Yamamoto said.

LEARNING TO TEACH

Even when capable teachers and willing students are enthusiastic about giving life to a language, the job of those teachers is nothing like that of educating students in English.

There are relatively few books written in Cherokee for children to use in school. Simple things, such as nursery rhymes, songs and games to help children learn haven't existed until now.

One of the main parts of Peter's work with Cherokee learners is developing a curriculum where none has ever existed.

"You don't know anything going into it," Peter said of the curriculum development. "There's no documentation of what works and what doesn't, because it's never been done before. That makes it difficult to establish reasonable expectations about how much language children can learn."

Fortunately, Cherokee speakers have one successful model to study. Hawaii has been largely successful in saving its native language. When the islands were made a state, the teaching of the native language in schools was made illegal. When Hawaiians realized their language was in danger of dying, they started fighting to save it. By opening private education centers where the language could be taught, aggressively documenting the language, and educating young people, they have kept it alive. The effort has taken more than 20 years.

Peter has worked with the Cherokee Nation to develop a similar curriculum. They started with preschool. They have added a new grade to the curriculum each year, and are now to second grade. Like the Hawaiians, they hope to develop curriculum through the college level.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

While learning a new language is difficult enough, many indigenous communities face political challenges as well. Changes in tribal leadership and efforts among state legislatures to make English the official language are just a few potential dangers on the horizon. Peter said many families she works with are concerned that, after studying Cherokee intensely for years, their children might not be able to succeed in an English-only school.

"These parents are taking a huge leap of faith with this program. Fortunately, they realize that while it's not too late for Cherokee, there's not much time left, and are willing to work to save it now," she said.

Economic pressures have convinced some that English is necessary for indigenous communities to remain viable.

"The major European languages are spreading to every corner of every reservation and town," Yamamoto said. "Our challenge is to work to strengthen language so it goes beyond the emotional level. We need to show that being bilingual is advantageous."

ACADEMIC PRESSURE

Early in his career, Yamamoto encountered strong distrust of academics among indigenous communities. Scholars had a reputation of coming to a community, studying a language, then taking their findings to their far-off campuses and giving nothing back. Those attitudes are less prevalent now, he said, thanks to scholars who have worked to help save languages in their native communities and educate those who want to save it. The scholars have benefited as well. "This has been a mutually respectful relationship," Peter said of her work with the Cherokee. "Together we've developed a curriculum with their teachers to educate the children, and they've allowed us to do research on saving languages with them."

Saving languages has not always been accepted as a legitimate academic pursuit. With the Linguistics Society of America, Yamamoto has worked for years to encourage academic departments and universities to accept language revitalization as work that satisfies academic responsibilities.

Peter said she has received support from her department and colleagues, as well as the communities she works with, which has encouraged her to carry on.

"I feel very committed to this," she said. "As long as they want me there I'll continue. This is probably a lifelong commitment."

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