Sunday, March 7, 2010

Saving Salish

The Spokesman-Review has an excellent article on Kalispel efforts to revive the Salish language. (There is also a video at the SR website.) The combination of gambling revenue, far-sighted tribal leadership, and education technology seems to be making the difference. The Inlander has this recent article on the same topic. Though it is early to say anything for certain, the Kalispel effort may be just in time--dozens of native youths are learning the language and it is even being offered in the local public school. But the prospects are less rosy for some other Plateau languages, according to the Spokesman:

Wenatchee-Moses Columbian is spoken fluently by perhaps five people, making it one of the most endangered languages in the world. More endangered is Coeur d’Alene, with only one or two native speakers remaining . . . . 

The article reminded me of the excellent film that Montana anthropologist Sally Thompson premiered a few years ago, Why Save a Language? That film argued in part: "Over three hundred languages were spoken on this continent when the first Europeans arrived. Half have vanished. Of those that remain, many are spoken by only a handful of elderly people. The loss of a language has serious consequences for the affected community . . . The film provides cogent arguments for the importance of native languages not only to the people who speak them, but also for the contributions to the world's knowledge and heritage held in these languages." (You can buy a copy of the film for $20 via Amazon.)

Of course, the loss of tribal languages is a world-wide phenomena. The map below shows the 578 languages listed by UNESCO as "critically endangered" which is defined as "The youngest speakers are in the great-grandparental generation, and the language is not used for everyday interactions. These older people often remember only part of the language but do not use it, since there may not be anyone to speak with."

Language revival efforts are also underway all over the world, and especially in Native America. The next decade or two will tell the story. I fear that future generations will look at out era as the time of the great languages extinction.

[Photo of Johnny Arlee from the SR article.]

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