Sunday, July 17, 2011

Does keeping Native languages alive even matter? Part 2

I posted the other day about Native languages and the ongoing conversation I hear about whether it is even of any value to do so. With as many "reasons" as others come up with on how it is not any value, I've split up my own discussion into several parts:

"We're all going to one language anyways"

Whether that is true or not (and it's certainly not happening in anyone's lifetime alive now,) the value of having these languages not only not go extinct, but thrive, is sadly losing potency as the years wear on. This is, quite simply, because each year we're losing more and more people who know what is behind the language.

There are many, many words and phrases in any language that are not simply a way to say the same thing in any language. There are ideas, thoughts, values, philosophies - whole religions - that you can only talk about comprehensively in a certain language. My mom talks about my grandpa (whose first language was English, I might add) who would struggle to impart a Tlingit philosophy or value he learned growing up, but would throw up his hands with a, "There's no way to say that in English!"

A Tlingit teacher I had talked about one word - just ONE word - in Tlingit, "Eetoowoo" (and yikes, I think I just hacked up that spelling!) It is translated in English as "sorrow." But I can still hear her voice as she tried to explain what it really meant - it was more than sorrow. It was a deep, deep sadness that the whole body, the whole being, was involved in. Not a word, or even meaning, we have in the English language. I still don't know what she meant.

I've heard people say they can experience a culture by visiting it, by attending a dance, by reading about it - therefore why not just all speak the same language as the language isn't a part of it?

But culture isn't about attending a play or viewing a piece of art. It literally makes up who a person is.

If you think language isn't important to a culture, I challenge you to learn another language fluently. Use this language, and only this language, to your children, and forbid them to speak English. Then tell me the stories your father told have the same weight. Tell me the songs your mother sang to you can be passed on. Tell me the jokes you've giggled at since you were in high school translate to this language, and your favorite books make as much sense. I gaurantee you MUCH will be lost. Even if you're able to capture big chunks of it, there's no way to translate a whole culture into a different language in one generation.

Now try and think of this as a large group of people trying to do the same thing. Values, stories, philosophies, songs - we've already lost so much. But if we can literally speak the same language as those who can still teach it before it's too late, it won't all be gone.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Does keeping Native languages alive even matter?

The threat of extinction for many (nearly all) Alaska Native languages has received some attention lately, much do to the release of an updates Alaska Native languages map.

I'll leave some others (here, Talking Alaska) to talk about the why and what is going on.

What I get concerned with, whenever this topic comes up and the inevitable backlash of negative commentary, is the idea that the languages should be kept alive at all. Honestly, the idea that it was acceptable, or even preferred, that these languages go extinct was foreign to me until about the age of 15. That was the first time I heard a rant from a peer on "preserving" English as the only American language. Despite the fact that ironies abound when talking about "preserving" the native language of the land (English? Really?) - it is an all-too-common sentiment I've heard expressed.

Other reasons I've heard for letting it go - it's natural selection for it to go extinct, children who learn another language other than English first struggle with learning at a pace with others, there's no value to having different languages, we're spending too much on trying to save languages... though all too frequently the argument just boils down to "we're all American now! Why do we have to dwell on the past?"

I want to address each of these reasons, so I'm going to address a different one each day.

Natural Selection - or "All cultures/languages change"

The above statement is true. Languages and cultures change, and a sign of a dying culture is one trying not to change at all.

But an organic evolution is quite different than a forced extinction. Ask some dinosaurs if they would prefer to evolve into some birds over a few thousand millenia, or if they would like a meteor dropped on their heads. To put it in more human terms, would you prefer to grow out of your job and get promoted, or would you prefer to be fired?

For the most part, what happened to the Native languages of the Americas wasn't a natural evolution. What happened was traumatic, invasive and left no room for real adaptation. In both cases above, true evolution happens over a longer period of time and there is a chosen adjustment to changing environments - choosing what is deemed "better". And in both cases, asteroid or firing, a forced change is fairly terrible to experience and "only the strong survive" doesn't neccessarily apply. Too much of that depends on chance and what the invasive element chooses.

I had a great Tlingit teacher who talked to us about a common Tlingit expression I heard growing up. When someone says "Gunalcheesh" (thank you) - the response is often "Ho ho!" (you're welcome.) I really did hear this often.

What a surprise to learn it didn't mean what I think it meant over 20 years later! "Gunalcheesh ho ho" actually is one phrase, and is used to emphasize the thank you - like "Thank you VERY much." There is no phrase commonly said, traditionally, to respond to thank you, as there is in English. But the "young kids" as she said (she meant my parents generation!) were changing this, and this new kind of word was emerging.

To a language, she said, this is a great thing. It shows the language is alive, and adapting. The "young kids" were choosing to change this on their own, because it suited the younger culture more, and it brought two languages together.

THAT is "natural selection."

What happened here was trauma. It was forced change. It was not an evolution, but something ripped out by the roots. This isn't an effort to place blame, but to emphasize that there is nothing "natural" about being beaten for speaking a language, or being told to speak a foreign language in your own home. It also isn't totally extinct yet for all the languages. And until it is, why would we ever prevent those from fighting that fight?

Next: Is there any real value to knowing these languages?