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Thoughts on Twenty Years of Native Language Revitalization.

The National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute's Enduring Voices Project have named Oklahoma as one of their "Language Hotspots" in the global loss of languages. A hotspot is an area with high linguistic diversity, very few native speakers of each language, and very little documentation about them. This is an apt description of language endangerment in Oklahoma, yet it does not adequately capture all that is happening.

I first began working in language revitalization in the summer of 1991 at the Oklahoma Native American Languages Development Institute based in Choctaw, Oklahoma. Throughout the month of June for three summers, Native language teachers and elders got together with linguists and some graduate students like myself at the time to figure out how their languages work and how this knowledge can be transferred to curriculum and teaching. At that time, the participants from every tribe felt isolated--from others who felt as strongly about their own languages and could provide moral support, and from their tribes, who often denied that their languages were in crisis. All expressed frustration and profound sadness that the youth did not seem to care about language. Who would they even teach to? Were these materials all in vain? Who would carry on the languages?


Twenty years later, yes, there are fewer mother-tongue speakers in every tribe. But nearly every tribe has a language program, whether grossroots or sponsored by the tribal government. Some of the most active and vibrant classes are situated in tribes that have no speakers--that is, no one who grew up speaking the language as their first language. The Myaamia, Kaw, and Osage are all creating new speakers from documentation and hard work. Dedicated and creative young adults are in leadership positions in many programs, including the Sauk Language Department, Euchee Language Project, and Chickasaw Nation. Cherokee Nation has schooling where children are fully immersed in the language from preschool to second grades, and technology that is fully up with the times, attracting youth to the modern uses of their language. Young parents from all over Oklahoma are creating "family nests," using their languages at home with their children on a daily basis and pushing themselves to keep up with them. The Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair brings together 600-800 pre-K through twelfth-grade students every year. Over two days, they perform narratives, skits, and songs and show books and films they have created in their languages. They write advocacy essays on the importance of language in their lives.

Twenty years later, the problems are no longer isolation, denial, and lack of interest. The challenge is that, while there are many more people involved in language revitalization, there are still too few teachers to keep up with the desire to learn. Revitalization is a youth-driven movement, and we are scrambling to respond.

So if Oklahoma is a hotspot of language endangerment, it is also a hotspot of language learning and experimentation. I am thankful whenever attention is paid to language diversity. The loss of languages is a problem that affects all humans beyond what we can predict. However, when I think of Oklahoma, I think of a piece of artwork by a young Chickasaw girl who is learning her language at home. In it, a turtle is rising from the water carrying language on its back.

University of Oklahoma

Mary S. Linn, Associate Curator of Native American Languages at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, works in language documentation, description, and revitalization. She began the Native American Languages "living language" collection at the museum, focusing on Oklahoma languages and community language needs.
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Author:Linn, Mary S.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U7OK
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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