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.


Enjay in E MT said...

I'll try not to spam you Alaska Real.

The loss of any language is a tragedy. Fortuately, many native people in our state continue to pass their heritage & language to the younger generations. Perhaps because many live on reservations -it has kept their culture more alive than the blending of 'white America' where generational families are separated.

Anonymous said...

The loss of a language is sad and with it the diversity that makes the world an interesting and special place.
My family included grandparents that brought their language to my life and I still miss hearing their way of passing on a special feeling or meaning by using their native tongue.
Thanks for bringing this up.

fromthediagonal said...

Raven, those who spout the "why bother, we are going to have one language only" ideas are intellectually lazy, ruled by a belief of superiority of their ideas.
They are wrong.

Full disclosure: I was born in Germany and lived in India and the UK before becoming a naturalized US citizen. I would not want to live anywhere else, but am not blind to the pros and cons of this nation's notion of exceptionality.

The sooner in life we are exposed to languages other than the one we were birthed into, the easier they are to absorb. There is a benefit to this in that not only does our tongue become more facile, so does our mind. Yet when we are forced to abandon the language and culture to which we were born and to which we most likely have genetic memory, we lose out on some of the most important phases of our social and societal development.

alaskapi said...

When I was a teen my father told me, very seriously, that I did not know what I did not know. Veerrry seriously.
As time has passed what he was trying to get at has taken on new meanings. As it relates to your post I think it also means we often do not know what we have lost when we set aside tools which we have long used in favor of others.
I spent a great deal of time in college trying to understand what sophrosyne could be said to mean as it seemed to get at something English has no words for.

It was a worthwhile venture and left me with a strong sense that we do lose important things when we set aside language which we lived in and through.
Yes, it matters a great deal.
Keeping Native languages alive means a great deal.
We should not wait until more are gone or threatened , to be mourners only.
I cannot speak my grandmother's tongue but I support the work of those with the Alutiiq project that what she once knew is not lost to her great great grands. They will have need of that knowledge.