Sunday, October 22, 2023

Losing a Language

My parents were German refugees, and I was born before the end of World War II. They did not want me associated with Germany, which was still the enemy, so they were determined that I be as American as possible and therefore only spoke English with me. Having lived both in England and France after escaping Germany they spoke all three languages fluently, so this was not a problem. Of course, they spoke German with each other, so I had to learn some in self defense! I have a friend who came over somewhat later and her parents did not wish her to forget Germany, so they only spoke German to her at home. Today I wish that my parents had spoken German to me, but they were right not to at the time.

I recently read a story in the Smithsonian Magazine and the National Museum of the American Indian in an article called “Waking a language from its slumber” by Kasike Jorge Baracutay Esteve. He has been a cultural activist wishing to bring back the Taino language to the indigenous people of the Caribbean. This has become an important issue to many tribes in the States as well. My first thought was … why?

A fascinating paper called “Native Language Revitalization: Keeping the Languages Alive and Thriving” by Amy M. Gannet at Southeastern Oklahoma University goes into the subject in great depth. Every other sentence is footnoted so maybe it is a Phd thesis. She says that there are approximately 7,000 languages in use today and that by the end of this century 50-90% will be extinct. Again, why is this happening?

I believe I have found a major reason as regards the Native Americans. You have probably heard about the Indian Boarding schools where the relatively new Americans wanted to “tame the savages” by teaching the Indians Anglo ways. You have maybe heard Governor Ron de Santis say, something to the effect that there was nothing here until we came. This unfortunately was, and seems still is, the attitude of many.

Native Americans have kept much of their culture alive with traditional arts and ceremonies that differ in each tribe. However, as Native languages were forbidden in Indian boarding schools and any use was punished, graduates seeing the Anglos were taking over, and many wished to have their children assimilate, which was the idea. As a result, a dwindling number of tribal elders retained fluency.

Some of the Native American Languages

In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA) to allow the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction in schools giving the children the right to express themselves and be educated in their native language. In 2006 Congress went further enacting the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act to help keep Native American languages alive through language immersion programs.

Language is part of cultural heritage. An element of understanding is lost in translation, particularly in imparting stories of the past where words have no modern equivalent. Even though Latin and ancient Greek lie at the root of modern Western languages and continue in scientific vocabulary their study has been dropped from the school curriculum. Only specialized scholars can access the great works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Homer in the original. Per example

A fragment of the second book of the Elements of Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, was discovered in 1897 at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

My wife speaks French fluently and can get along in Spanish. I can get along in French and German though the latter is better. Obviously English is our native language yet there are certain words and phrases we say to each other in another language because their exact meaning cannot be translated. Here is a simple expression, “attention”. It is even the same word in English but in French, it might be said to someone as a warning, ie watch out if there is a step or other hazard ahead.

Bringing back all languages that are dying out may not be possible but for those that can be revived an important understanding of history and identity can be passed on to future generations.

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