The Challenges of Learning Your Language
A colleague asked me a pretty legitimate question the other day.
“Do you know your language?”
It was a good question. I’m sure many white (Anglo?) people wonder if their Native friends speak their languages, or to take it further, what mystical things their Native friends do behind closed doors/teepees/hogans.
“Not really,” I replied.
I grew up in a Comanche and Muscogee Creek speaking household. By this I mean my grandparents on both sides spoke their languages, and in my Creek grandparents’ case, it was the only language they spoke.
As a youth, I remember hearing the sounds of the languages being spoken and I remember it sounding like some sort of serious mumbling. My Creek grandfather spoke to my grandmother in sounds only they, and my mother, and her brother and sisters, understood. Us young folk could only look back and forth at the conversation that was occurring above us, and eventually go back to playing cars.
This was the late seventies and eighties. This was, perhaps, a different time in Oklahoma.
My Comanche grandma, or my Kaku as I called her, spoke Comanche often with her friends, her contemporaries. I knew even then that this was something valuable, that I was hearing something that was passing, and deep down I wanted to know the language, but I had no idea how to go about acquiring this knowledge. Just being around it wasn’t enough, I knew that much.
It is even more difficult to learn your language when you live far away from your fellow tribal citizens, as I do now. I believe that to really know and learn a language, you have to be around the people who speak it. During my time in Oklahoma, I took three semesters of Creek language classes at the University of Oklahoma and I attended Comanche language classes in Norman, and during those periods my retention of those languages was at its best.
There are very few opportunities to speak Comanche or Creek in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Earlier this semester, a Creek woman, who was just hired by the University of New Mexico, where I work, said hello to me in the elevator in our language. Stonko/Estonko, she said to me, and it didn’t even register with me until a full five seconds later that someone had just said hi to me in Creek. I apologized and said hello back. It had been so long since I heard Creek language.
I don’t know if it’s in the cards for me to learn my language while I live so far from home. I have many things that occur in my life that take me away from language preservation opportunities currently, but it’s not like I haven’t tried
For a good six months or so I helped organize language meetings in Albuquerque. A group of fellow Comanches who live in the metropolitan area came, and we held our own classes with a genuine Comanche speaker. The tribe provided some language materials. We gave it a good shot.
It wasn’t perfect. Little did I know of the challenges and obstacles that awaited me, things that in my opinion have little to do with learning the language itself.
What did I learn? What I learned is there will always be the matter of politics, family grievances, and disagreements when it comes to language, even to the point of just how a word is said or spelled. There was disagreement on our dictionary. It was such a frustrating experience.
All I wanted to know was how to speak my language, not what family did what to whom. I understood the importance of how to say a word correctly, but the spelling meant little to me, as our languages began orally. Maybe that was wrong of me, but while we disagreed about how to properly spell our language, I felt the language itself wasn’t waiting for us, and it was, in fact, dying in front of our eyes, a victim of generational arrogance. I suppose that perhaps some future “Comanche novelists” may need to spell our language consistently. My goal was to actually learn the meanings before it disappeared and there was no language to spell -- correctly or incorrectly -- at all.
And so, at some point, I grew tired of trying. I stepped away from it all, not sure exactly how or if my energy was being properly used. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.
What I do know is this. Though I do not know either of my languages well, I am still a Comanche citizen and I am also Creek from my mother’s people. Those things will never change, and I’m very proud to say it. Perhaps someday I may be able to learn my languages and if that day comes I look forward to it. I am certainly open to any ideas.
It’s not the end, not a stopping point, but rather a pause, for now.
Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a writer and filmmaker from Walters, OK now based in Albuquerque, NM. Asenap was selected to the 2011 Sundance Institute Nativelab fellowship and his short film, Rugged Guy, is currently screening at film festivals around the country. He will begin graduate studies in Art History in the fall of 2013 at the University of New Mexico, where is also is employed at the Fine Arts and Design Library.