Emotions Run Deep In Efforts To Preserve Native Languages
By: Elsa H. Partan
A book published this summer about keeping endangered languages alive includes an essay by a Mashpee Wampanoag woman, Jessie (Little Doe) Baird. Among the other writers are a Maori woman from New Zealand, Mohawks from Ontario, and Miami tribe members from Ohio.
“Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families,” was edited by linguist and professor emeritus Leanne Hinton of Berkeley, California, and published by Heyday Books.
The writers of the book’s 13 essays each taught their ancestral language to their children, many from the moment of their children’s birth. They write of common difficulties in preserving their ancestral languages—a feeling of inadequacy in their knowledge of the language, dealing with the tendency of their children to speak English after they reach school age, and the challenge of building up language communities in which their languages can flourish. At the heart of each essay is a deep desire, often tinged with pain, to pass on a cultural and linguistic heritage to future generations.
Ms. Baird is unusual in the fact that she revived her ancestral language, Wôpanâak, with no living speakers remaining. Starting in 1993, she earned a linguistics master’s degree and used 300-year-old documents to understand the grammar and vocabulary of the Wampanoag people at the time they encountered English settlers. Ms. Baird’s Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is now developing an immersion charter school, slated to open in August 2015.
There is only one other similar case given in the book, a man named Daryl Baldwin of the Miami Tribe in Ohio. Like Ms. Baird, Mr. Baldwin also earned a linguistics master’s degree so that he could understand documents in his ancestral language.
Ms. Hinton, the book’s editor and a contributing essayist, said the two cases form a lesson about reviving a silent language.
“You actually need an education in linguistics,” she said. “That allows them to take raw documentation and understand it. But it also takes a good memory.”
More hard work was waiting after Ms. Baird and Mr. Baldwin analyzed the existing documents, Ms. Hinton said.
“They don’t tell you how to learn the language in graduate school,” she said. “These two had to know linguistics so they could make sense of the documentation and then they had to start using it.”
Mr. Baldwin wrote about one issue that comes up frequently with his younger children, now 10 and 13 years old.
“Just as I was writing this section, my youngest daughter, amehkoonsa, approached me to ask for some of what I was snacking on. I gave her only a very small portion with a smile, knowing that the amount I gave her would not be satisfactory to her. In English, she replied, “You know I want more than that.”
Mr. Baldwin asked his daughter to ask for the food in the Miami language, Myaamia.
“She struggled to respond, but not because the vocabulary wasn’t there,” he wrote. “She knows from previous instances that the construct of the Myaamia sentence, hence the thought process, is situational and would not exactly match the English.”
After giving her adequate time to think about it, he supplied, in Myaamia, “You know I will eat more.”
She repeated the sentence in Myaamia without any trouble, understanding exactly what he said.
“One of the cautions in second-language learning is to understand ‘how the language thinks’ and we consciously teach that as a skill, always pointing out how Myaamia thinks differently from English,” Mr. Baldwin wrote.
Complete fluency is not for this generation, he noted.
“This is the generation of reintroduction to the language and its unique way of thinking, and rebuilding cultural context for a future fluent environment that no one can experience in our language,” he wrote, adding that it could take two to three generations before there is a community-wide immersion effort.
Like several of the essayists, Mr. Baldwin and his wife, Karen Baldwin, said that learning the Myaamia language has boosted their children’s confidence, especially as they get older.
Ms. Hinton said learning an ancestral language has been shown to have a confidence-boosting effect on native children.
“Because of the oppression that native people have gone through, there was a loss of confidence,” she said. “People were seeing themselves as inadequate. They needed to become part of this other culture but they weren’t good at it. By being able to say, ‘I have something that I am very proud of,’ and being in situations where people see you in that light, it brings a real self-confidence.”
Common to nearly every essay was the problem of what happens when a native child enters public school. English fluency was not the problem. The native children mentioned in the book could speak English by the time they entered school because they were surrounded by English-speaking people in the community and of course, the English-speaking media.
Keeping the children from switching permanently to English is the problem, the essayists wrote. Ms. Baird raised her now 9-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, speaking Wôpanâak at home. After entering public school, Mae Alice told her mother she does not want to speak Wôpanâak because, “Who would play with me?”
“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s the world we live in,” Ms. Baird said in a recent interview at the offices of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in Mashpee.
“No one can make the argument that they won’t learn English.”
Ms. Baird has faith that Mae Alice will eventually want to speak her native tongue again. In the meantime, Ms. Baird will continue to speak the language at home.
“She’s going to work for the [language reclamation] project, she just doesn’t know it yet,” Ms. Baird joked. “She’ll be looking for a job someday, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come work for the project?’ ”
For Maori tribe member Hana O’Regan of New Zealand, her children’s tendency to speak English after she fought so hard to raise them in a Maori-speaking home created a kind of desperation.
“They would tell others from the age of three and four about their need to speak te reo [the Maori language] lest the language of the tribe would die,” she wrote. “These poor children had the weight of their language’s survival on their shoulders before they could properly carry a backpack.”
Ms. O’Regan read advice from an expert that said that language should not become a battlefield with children.
“The home environment that I had created wasn’t quite a battlefield but could probably be likened to a rather limited enclosure with electric fences on all sides and with the children’s mother in a watch post on guard around the clock, lest anyone attempt to breech the boundaries!”
Ms. O’Regan says her hope is that, by the time her children are grown, their mother’s “warrior days” will be something to joke about, in the Maori language, of course.
“No pressure, my darlings—the fate of our language is up to you! No pressure!” she wrote.
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