Revitalizing Indigenous Languages: Why and How

Bonnie Jane Maracle

Our Language is a Gift from the Creator
In the beginning, the different entities in Creation were given their own languages for communication—birds, animals, fish, for example. The Human Beings too were given their own languages to communicate within their different societies. Each society of people, or nation, on Mother Earth is comprised of the same components—a land base, a history, a government, an economy, an education system, arts (stories, songs, dances), amongst others. These components of the society are linked together within by a language common to that nation—that language being their "gift" from the Creator.

Language is Culture; Culture is Language
For a nation of people, with their language threading throughout the various components of their society, what exudes from that nation is its overall Culture—its way of doing things, its way of seeing the world (worldview), its way of believing, its values. As a result, when the nation experiences a "shift" in its language by the interjection of another language, the original Culture is correspondingly interrupted and skewed towards a new way of doing things, seeing things, and believing. This is effected change has been named "colonization."

Language Shift
The more that language shift occurs within a nation, the greater the resulting loss of language and culture. Language shift has been experienced today by virtually every indigenous nation in North America. However, the shift has not entirely been by choice but more as a result of forced policies from a larger and more dominant foreign society through its government, its education system, its economics, its religion, and other components of its society.

Reversing the Language Shift in Indigenous Communities
Throughout the United States and Canada in the past two decades, a growing number of indigenous people have been advocating, lobbying, and developing language revitalization programs in their communities. More indigenous people are becoming aware of the importance that their original languages play in the development and maintenance of respect and responsibility in their inter-relationship with other entities of Creation. By re-introducing the original language into everyday conversations and transactions, members can in fact reverse the language shift back from the dominant language. The continued daily use of the original language requires much patience, dedication and perseverance.

Language Revitalization: Best Practices
Communities are seeking to re-connect to their indigenous roots and re-establish their relationships through programming that encompasses the intergenerational transmission of their original languages. In indigenous communities today there is a stark realization of the fact that their aged speakers are passing away and there are no younger members remaining who speak the original languages. Therefore the goal of language programming is focused on increasing the number of speakers as effectively and as economically as possible.

One of the best practices to avert further language loss while speakers still exist is to have the language spoken to the babies and toddlers on a daily basis as they are learning to talk. By raising the next generation naturally immersed in the everyday use of the original language, the development of mother-tongue first-language speakers will result, and this remains the most effective and economical method of teaching the language. It costs nothing to speak to a child in the target language and has been the method of language transmission that has kept the original language alive for thousands of years.

Another practice used today to produce speakers is through the immersion classroom. The daily exposure of the learner to the original language is a highly effective method for the development of second-language speakers.

The least effective practice to develop second-language speakers is through the language-as-a-subject classroom. The learner, in comparison, has only intermittent and fragmented exposure to the original language and is continually interrupted with long periods of foreign language use. This method of language-learning does not produce language speakers.

Language: A Renewable Resource
The heritage language has long been referred to as a natural renewable resource that needs nurturing to continue to grow. The indigenous language can be strengthened and prolonged by using it as a means of communication in a daily living milieu.

The survival of original languages today rests upon the shoulders of the remaining speakers to ensure that the next generation, and seven generations to come, continues to have the opportunity to experience the gift of their original language from the Creator.

Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, from the Wolf Clan of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation, is completing her PhD Indigenous Studies Program at Trent University; is an instructor in the Aboriginal Language ImmersionTeacher Program at Queen’s University; works as the Language Program Co-ordinator at the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community; and is Chair of the Language Circle in her home community.

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kizzy's picture
i speak in my language all the time and proud of it.
808lavaboy's picture
Aloha e Bonnie Jane, I agree with all that you say, accept for the beginning part. We were a people with one language. GOD confused their language and sent them off with the people that they could understand from there to the ends of the earth. I pray for GOD's grace and protection in this matter of language for the indigenous people of the world. I have Hawai'ian,and English from my great grandparents on my dads side of the family. Also on my dad's side of the family were my great grandparents that came to Hawai'i from Okinawa. On my mom's side I have Taino,Spanish,French and Black through my great grandparents that came to Hawai'i from Puerto Rico. On my mom's side my grandfather gives us Ilocano and Spanish. So you see that I know of the cultural dynamics of language to the People of the land. Hawai'ans are on an upward trend in their children speaking their native tongue. We almost lost the ability to converse in our mother tongue. We had a whole generation, make that two generations that were taught by the white man that speaking Hawai'ian in school was not happening on their watch. That kind of thinking is unacceptable. May GOD nurture and water our native tongues till it blossoms like flowers in his garden. A hui hou (until we meet again). Jj
pstago's picture
A beatiful article about our languages. (Ndee'be'yaa'tea'- The language of the people). I agree,it a Gift from the Creator. From Creation or the "Begining of Time" we humans or "five-fingered" were the ONLY creation that was given a language. It was not given to lessor creation such as animals. We were created with the knowledge with a conscience or to know "what is right and wrong". We have the abilility to "reason" to "comprehend" and to comminicate our thoughts to one another. Animals can't do that. This does not to say we should disrespect animals or their purpose for creation. They were created to fullfill the purpose of human beings. As you complete your doctoral degree, be carefull with your assumptions. Consult with elders and traditional and cultural keepers of your people. Don't make the mistake with interpretation of religious thoughts. Congradulation upon getting your degree. Not a monkey's uncle. Phil Stago (White Mountain Apache) Ft. Apache, Arizona
beaver's picture
Re: "(Animals) were created to fullfill (sic) the purpose of human beings," that sounds more like Christian philosophy rather than indigenous philosophy.
beaver's picture
Re: "One of the best practices to avert further language loss while speakers still exist is to have the language spoken to the babies and toddlers on a daily basis as they are learning to talk." I agree that raising the next generation naturally immersed in the original language is the best approach but there are practical difficulties on most reservations that precludes this approach. On our reservation for instance, there are only 4 speakers of the original language, one of them is me. About 30% of the population lives in dire poverty on the reservation while those that are better off live within 5 miles of the reservation in better neighborhoods. All three who speaks the native language live on the reservation. Most babies live with their mothers and families off the reservation, and the mothers cannot speak or understand the native language. Often, the only time Elders seems to get to see their grandkids is when they run into them at Walmart. Or during social events. It is difficult to raise toddlers speaking the native language, given the realities of reservation life.