ASU center bringing new life to Native languages

Languages once as diverse as the people who spoke them are falling silent around the world.

In our own state, indigenous languages like that of the Mojave tribe are considered endangered, and linguists at ASU are working to save them.

The Center for Indian Education at ASU, created 51 years ago as a research, teaching and outreach effort, works with the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community and others in the state.

There are about 175 to 200 Native American languages still spoken in the United States said Teresa McCarty, the co-director for the Center for Indian Education at ASU.

Of those languages, only about 20 are still being passed down to children as first languages. Most of these Native American languages are spoken by individuals beyond childbearing age — many of them elders over age 65 — putting the languages at risk of being permanently silenced.

Once a language becomes silent, unless it has been well documented through video and audio recordings, it is extremely difficult for that language to be spoken in its original form.

“Imagine trying to learn a language you have never heard spoken,” she said.

It’s possible for the language to be learned again using texts, like bibles, originally written in or translated into the Native American language, she said. This is why community-based programs across the U.S. are working hard to continue to speak the language.

When the center was created, one of its primary goals was to prepare teachers to be more sensitive to cultural differences between Native American children and non-Native teachers.

Over the years, the center has worked with many different schools in different Native communities to help promote retention of indigenous languages and cultures.

“It’s a worldwide movement and the center is an important node,” McCarty said.

Fort Mojave

The Center for Indian Education has facilitated workshops for both learners and speakers at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in northwest Arizona, California and Nevada.

Fort Mojave has about 22 elders who speak some Mojave, McCarty said.

Natalie Diaz, a linguist and the program coordinator for Fort Mojave’s language recovery program, said the tribe does not differentiate between fluent speakers and partially fluent speakers because they want as many people as possible to be involved in the process.

The tribal council for Fort Mojave is working in partnership with the center on its language preservation and revitalization efforts.
“It’s a testament to how   badly people want to do it,” Diaz said.

Diaz is working to preserve the language by recording conversations among the elders, learning the language herself and working with elders to teach it in conversational and cultural settings, like making pottery or cooking.

Since February, 12 core learners at Fort Mojave have rallied around the elders to help build the program. These 12 are committed to learning the language so they can pass it on to their own kids and other people in the community, and they will help teach in the tribal day care.

There are many other community-based efforts similar to Fort Mojave, but it’s one of the youngest in Arizona. Navajo language revitalization efforts began in a Window Rock public school in 1986 on the Navajo reservation. At Fort Mojave, the learners are adults around age 30, Diaz said.

They take part in classes every week with elders where they practice conversational Mojave in a group setting. They also have practice breakout sessions on their own.

At these sessions, they discuss dialectical differences in the speech of different elders, since Mojave is spoken differently at Fort Mojave than in Parker.

Joe Scerato, a staff member at the cultural preservation project at Fort Mojave, said there were probably always differences between the Northern, Central and Southern Mojave tribes but they became more after the Southern Mojave were forcefully relocated by the federal government in 1865 to a reservation in Parker.  Scerato tries to help everyone understand that the differences in the dialect are not errors.

The learners also practice short phrases like “Mat mithaava” and “Mat ithaamotm.” These phrases mean “Are you angry?” and “I am not angry.”

The learners said there have been many benefits to learning the language, but an unanticipated effect was the intergenerational relationships and understanding learning the language has built.

“[The elders] were afraid to speak it in front of people as much as I was,” said April Garcia, an education administrator for the Mojave tribal government and learner.

Garcia said learning the language helps her build a stronger relationship with the elders in her community and gives her a better sense of her identity.

“It strengthens who I am as a Mojave woman, as a friend, as a sister and as a member of the community,” Garcia said.

Native language education

Diaz said one of the major goals of the program is to bring Native songs and language into the Fort Mojave day care.  Introducing Native language into schools near reservations is one of the keys to bringing a language back.

Diaz and her team are currently working to introduce simple songs and lullabies to the tribal day care program.

“Chuksa, iivi, iimemipuk iime kwatharap…” is the beginning of the modified version of “Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes” song the group will introduce.

Although it takes many years, other languages like Hawaiian were brought back from the brink of extinction, beginning with “language nests,” McCarty said.

These “language nests” are family-run preschools designated for learning the Native language. In the preschools, only the Native language is spoken, which McCarty described as language immersion.

“Children are immersed in the language spoken by elders, learning it naturally as children formerly did at home,” she said.

Mary Eunice Romero- Little, a professor of applied linguistics who works with the Center for Indian Education, facilitates workshops to help communities that want to promote their language.

There are a few schools that have been able to use a bilingual enrichment approach for language revitalization in Flagstaff and Window Rock on the Navajo reservation, even though bilingual education has been effectively banned by “English for the Children” legislation in Arizona public schools, she said.

The state law was passed in 2000 and states that reading, writing and other subjects must be taught in English. Bilingual education is allowed in schools in which 90 percent of the children already speak fluent English.

“They are abiding by the same laws and they are accountable to the same standards” as other schools, McCarty said.

Parents voluntarily enroll their children in these schools because they want their children to have the opportunity to learn their heritage language and culture. Research, McCarty added, shows that students in these schools perform as well as or better than their peers in English-only programs.

The Mojave reservation is a long way from bilingual education, although Diaz said the local schools are interested in implementing a program.

Global efforts

Susan Penfield, program director for the Documenting Endangered Languages program at the National Science Foundation, said studying endangered languages around the world helps linguists and scientists understand how people in that culture think and how they live.

“Without linguistic diversity we will never know the capabilities of the human mind,” Penfield said.

Reach the reporter at mary.shinn@asu.edu