In graduate school over forty years ago I was fascinated when a Ph.D. candidate described his dissertation in the field of anthropological linguistics. His project was to live at the Northern Paiute Indian Reservation in Nevada, immerse himself in conversation with the last living native speakers of the language, write an alphabet, and create a systematic grammar. The project’s purpose was to record important stories, create a written record, and ensure that the nation’s elders did not take the language with them to their graves.
Anthropological linguistics, which was historically driven primarily by the colonial zeal of Christian missionaries trained at the Summer Institute of Linguistics to document the world’s languages for the purpose of biblical translation, has ironically in the past half century been transformed by its practitioners to document, record, and preserve indigenous languages.
Sunday’s NY Times records a fascinating, follow-up chapter in the story of the preservation of Native American languages: In California, Saving a Language That Predates Spanish and English. Norimitsu Onishi reports that public schools in Eureka, California are teaching the Yurok language that nearly became extinct. “Eureka began offering Yurok two years ago, bringing to four the number of public high schools in Northern California where the language is taught. Two public elementary schools also offer it, including one as part of a new immersion program. The Yurok Tribe’s extensive campaign to revive the language serves as a model to the many other tribes… that are undertaking similar efforts….”
Onishi describes the linguistic transformation occurring in the American Indian nations able to afford such research and educational efforts. “The experience of the Yuroks and other tribes is also redefining what it means to have a living language… All of the current Yurok teachers came to the language as adults, by painstakingly acquiring it from the last living elders and sometimes comparing notes with outside linguists.” James Gensaw, now teaching Yurok at Eureka High School, remembers learning some vocabulary words from his grandfather, becoming fascinated by the language, and asking an elder to help him compose a song in Yurok. Later he worked with a linguist from the University of California: “I learned grammar from him and was also working with six fluent speakers.” Today he is teaching young people the language of their culture. By contrast, students sent to boarding schools into the 1950s were taught only English and often punished for speaking their native language.
While we hear a great deal today about the advantages of a uniform curriculum across America’s public schools, Mike Rose, UCLA professor and education writer, asks us not to forget the ways public schools also reflect and nurture the many cultures that are all part of our very diverse society: “Schools are nested in place—for all their regularity, they reflect local history, language, and cultural practices.” (Why School? [2014 edition], p. 212)
Onishi’s story from California describes public school educators who have been developing exciting curricula to serve the needs of children in local areas. “Now nine people are certified to teach the Yurok language in public schools… A (California) law was passed in 2009 granting certification to teachers recommended by tribes themselves. The change made it easier for public schools to offer Yurok and other Native American languages.”