Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Adopt an Endangered Language Program?

In Language on December 14, 2006 at 8:52 pm

Years ago I wrote an article on the native languages program at the Warm Springs rez in Central Oregon. They were teaching Wasco and Sahaptin to the young kids, to add Paiute later. None of these languages was about to go extinct, but the elders at Warm Springs saw that things would go in that direction if they didn’t act.

In the meantime, I’ve read a number of cases on the disappearance of native North American languages. Recently I came across this reprint of a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article on the possible dying out of Han Athabascan language, on a Navajo blog called Tribal Employee.

I thought of an idea that would help to continue endangered languages by seeding them outside their area, which would, in turn, inspire pride in keeping them alive in their homelands. What if there were a program in which an elementary school could sign up, choose an endangered language, and teach it to first graders? With each succeeding year, they would add teach more advanced language skills to that class, while adding the incoming first graders to the program?

All that would be necessary for this to happen would be for someone to create an online space that would allow free communication (forums, Skype, online video) and free storage for text and multimedia files. It would be a combination of a communications space and a library.

Each school would add to the site all the curricula they and their students had created in concert with their native language group. That curricula could include grammars, vocabulary lists, drills, exercises, little plays and so on. Native speakers would be in touch with the school their language is being taught in using online video and other communications tools. That way, the teachers and the kids could “call” with questions.

By seeding the languages outside their normal areas, there would always be speakers, ones not subject to the same pressures perhaps as the native speakers. The native speakers would be inspired by the demand for information from their charges to keep the language up so there would always be elders available for consultation.

In essence, what I’m proposing is a (brace yourself) “user generated” solution to language loss.

It would take some organization to build the website (why, hello there Pierre Omidyar, don’t you just look terrific today?) and provide initial moneys for the first round of speaker-school partnerships (along with securing existing teaching materials). But it could be self-supporting from there.

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