Friday, June 13, 2008

Practical linguistics

So, I promised I'd talk about the answer to the question "What do we do about it?" with regards to language loss. And I must confess, I've been avoiding posting, because that is such an overwhelming question. So much of the answer depends on the circumstances. In places like New Zealand and Hawai'i, where there is one language to focus on, and relatively (compared to California) large numbers of relatively (again, compared to California) young speakers, there's a lot to work with. And they have. The language nest programs of New Zealand (I can't think of the Maori for it right offhand) have been inspirational for lots of people, including Hawai'i, which now has immersion schools from pre-school through high school.

Things here are a bit harder, although there have been some amazing successes in the last fifteen years or so. The language revitalization movement nationwide (and, really, worldwide) has grown in power and scope, as one part of a larger revitalization of Native cultures in the public sphere. One of the presenters this week asked the question, "Is speaking our languages a political act?" His answer, "You bet your ass it is." So many participants have had people ask them why they can't live in the present, suggesting that the past is just the past, something to be gotten over. What such questioners miss is the fact that Native people are living in the present, living cultures which are alive and well, and that their present (like all of ours) inherently includes the effects of the past upon which it is based. And the past for Native people includes the overt and often violent repression of any cultural practice, among those, language. So the revival of so many languages is a political act, and in so many ways, an act of faith, one that assumes that the world is now ready for people who speak not only English, but their language or languages of heritage as well.

One program that's had amazing success is the Master-Apprentice Language Learning program. In that program, an elder who speaks her or his language of heritage is paired with a younger person who wants to not only learn the language, but also to teach whatever they learn (this is important). The point of the program is both to create new speakers, and to create new younger speakers who can serve as teachers. Long-term, the hope is to start teaching children, and eventually to re-establish language learning in the home. It is a daunting commitment. The trainings for the program are geared toward teaching speakers and learners to create their own immersion situations, since there is no community to which they can go to immerse themselves in their language. It takes an immense effort of will to insist on speaking a language that you're learning when everyone around you is speaking something else. I know one man who always said what he wanted to say in his language first, and then translated it into English, to give himself a chance to speak. The program has turned out a number of fluent speakers of Native Californian languages, some of whom are now raising their children with their language of heritage as a first language in the home.

The goal of this week is to help people learn whatever they can of their languages of heritage from documentation. It started as a program for languages which have no speakers, and the successes have been amazing, particularly given the starting point. After coming to this for so many years (the first of these was in, if I remember right, 1995), I've seen some people come knowing nothing about their language except that it hadn't been spoken in 30 years, who can now carry on a conversation. Seeing the homework assignments the students put together every morning is awe-inspiring. They range from the grammatical (how to construct commands; although, given the sense of humor of most the crowd, the commands are often pretty crazy), to the social (last time, one man did a lesson on pick-up lines for dances; he started with "You're pretty", and moved on to "Are you here with anyone?" all delivered in the most dead-pan shy voice -- we were in stitches).
Tomorrow morning is the morning when groups give their final presentations. They take all kinds of forms: language lessons, songs, prayers, stories, jokes. It's an embarrassment of riches, and every time I see it, I am awestruck. These are people, like us, with jobs and families and busy lives, who have taken a week to come and stare at musty old books, and to listen to scratchy recordings (have you ever heard a wax cylinder recording?!), who have waded through lectures on the international phonetic alphabet, and all of the quirky variants present in linguistic field notes, not to mention the lectures on analyzing the grammars of their languages based on available data. And, for the most part, they do it with grace and cheer, and usually, with a raunchy sense of humor (the press was here this morning for the homework presentations, and I don't think they got quite what they expected; we all laughed until our faces hurt, though).

By this time in the week, I've mostly hit saturation. Rick and the girls drove up from home today, and it was wonderful to see them. They're off to see Grandmom, and I'm waiting in the dorms to see if I can find the speaker I'm working with so we can prepare for tomorrow morning. After final presentations tomorrow, we're off -- first to see Grandmom, and then to go to Sacramento to see my parents, and to celebrate father's day and Younger Daughter's birthday, which are both on the same day this year.

In other, non-linguistic, news, I've finished the Hip in Hemp skirt -- go, me! For those of you who were following that cliff-hanger, it fits. The waist was big, but as it's meant to be gathered, that's all good. It's long enough, and I put together an i-cord drawstring to run through the waistband. It turns out that the KnitPicks Harmony needles are not only beautiful, but the little hole in the base of the needle (used to put the little key in to tighten in the tips) is incredibly useful for threading waistbands. I tied the end of the i-cord through the hole, and ran my needle through the waist, pulling the i-cord after it. How cool is that? Pictures soon, I promise. If I can find a dark slip, I might even wear it tomorrow. Two other projects are OTN, and I will also post about those soon. Thank you all for your patience with the non-knitting content. We now return to our regular programming.


Carrie K said...

Thank you for that informative post! It's heartwarming to hear that people are getting the information and the support to keep their language alive. I wonder what we'd sound like today, if there hadn't been all the conquering and occupying over the centuries.

twinsetellen said...

It sounds a lot like a knitting conference - serious passion, fun, hands on, and practical.

Have you been discussing the apology formally given by the Canadian government to their native peoples for the anti-cultural programs of the past? Being aware of these, it is so obvious that speaking these languages IS political, and of course, so much more.

Helen said...

There's long been a debate about keeping Irish and Scottish Gaelic alive, and whether they should be taught in schools. I'm not part of this because I've never lived in the areas where it's an issue, but I have heard that they reckon that banning it is the best way to keep Irish alive because it makes people so much keener to learn it :)

Carrie K said...

They showed a clip from Breath of Life on Channel 2 news last night! and there were two knitters in the class.

Gwen said...


Stell said...

Te KĊhanga Reo

pre school Maori language nests

looking forward to seeing the skirt

Anne said...

It always surprises me to hear people question the political power of language given a couple centuries of governmental emphasis (on this continent alone) focused on stamping out all but the language of the colonizer.

Hurray for the skirt --and happy birthday to Younger Daughter!H

Anonymous said...

Power of a language: when walking the lunch-time halls in jr hi, the guys lining the walls would talk in Navajo about us girls (language barrier is no mask for understanding the gist of some things!)- since they also spoke English, our defense was to talk in igpae atinlae.

How many of the previous non-speakers actually heard their mother language when they were small and are able to pull bits and pieces of it from the shadow of their memories?

I remember a Navajo man telling of how he went to work at a ranch in a northern state as a young teen and painstakingly teaching himself English. After several decades he finally came back home. He was shocked and stricken to learn that he'd lost much of his first language. It took him many months before he was again able to talk Navajo fluently with all its intricacies and nuances.

I have enjoyed this glimpse into the crucial work that you're doing!

KnitNana said...

Love my Harmony's, too!
I discovered today that Bloglines hasn't been updating me about your posts. If Margene hadn't mentioned it, I'd never have gone looking!
Glad you're still out here...