Reading Indigenous Epistemologies and Education—Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights (McCarthy, 2005) struck a very personal cord with me. The article explains that the groups of people who are identified as being Indigenous live on nineteen percent of the world’s land but populate only four percent of the world. In contrast to their small demographic population, they speak 4000-5000 of the 6000 languages worldwide. Of the 210 languages in the area that is now the Unites States and Canada, only sixteen percent are currently being learned by children through their families and communities as they grow up. If languages are not being learned by children, they will eventually cease to exist. Not only does the language itself die, but along with it goes other cultural connections.
The concern addressed in the article is the loss of many of those languages and what the school systems can do to try and help change that situation. This article is an introduction to four examples of K-12 schools that try and incorporate Indigenous languages and cultures into their systems in the hopes of saving them. When providing the example about inclusion of Native Hawaiian into Hawaiian elementary schools, it discussed the importance of doing more than just teach the language—inclusion of the culture must accompany it. That same lesson was learned for the schools that tried to implement the learning of Ojibwe as an “add-on” course.
One successful example of a language reintroduction has been the language immersion program done in New Zealand with the Maori language. In addition to learning the language, the program has also helped to support a rise in self-determination to a limited extent. Another positive example is a program connected to a large university (Michigan State University) that has had encouraging effects in revitalizing the Ojibwe language by creating a plan that worked to do more than just implement language learning.
My interest in this week’s article stems from my personal experience with a dying language: Yiddish. I realize that the culture connected to it as a whole, Judaism, is still very much thriving. That said, I am also very aware that when a language dies there are components and nuances that cannot be recovered. I have also personally witnessed a small portion of that language die. As a child, Yiddish was something that my grandmother spoke to my great-grandfather sporadically. It was also, and still is, the handful of words that some Jewish people, including myself, use to communicate with each other when English words just “aren’t quite right.” They are also words that have become part of the larger American Jewish culture which still remains intact.
What changed dramatically for me regarding my attitude towards Yiddish was when I met my husband. Yiddish was his first language. For his parents, who were born in Europe in the years preceding World War II and moved here (and met here) after the war, Yiddish was their primary language. It was the way that Jewish people communicated with each other in Europe. Regardless of what country someone lived in or what other language they spoke, Jews could communicate with each other through Yiddish. After his parents immigrated to the United States, met and married, Yiddish remained the language of their home. Although his parents learned English fluently, when they had children they still spoke Yiddish. When I met my in-laws, I became immersed in Yiddish. Although they were happy to speak English around me, I was eager to listen them speak their primary tongue. I had hoped to pick up as much as I could. Now, one generation later, my in-laws have both passed away, my husband has nobody to speak the language to, and my children only know the handful of “cultural” words that I know. Yiddish wasn’t spoken in our home. In my little part of the world, in one quick generation, I witnessed the language and the parts of the culture that accompany it go from complete to gone.
For Indigenous cultures, the ramifications of lost languages is far more significant than the loss of Yiddish. The rest of my culture is still intact and Hebrew has now become a daily spoken language where it didn’t used to be. Although the culture that goes with Yiddish is different, the remainder of the community and many other parts of it are still intact. That is not the case for all of the Indigenous communities. The impact of the loss of those languages has had a voluminous loss of access to many things. For example, many of their stories were often oral so without the language, an even larger part of their culture died. Work needs to be done to bring as much of those languages back but in ways that manages to help support and encourage the cultures to become stronger and reach independence and excellence and not ways that, inadvertently, impose the same type of oppression on them that has been in place for the past several centuries. Ethnographers are in the perfect position to monitor the various programs as Indigenous languages are being revived to ensure that they are helping empower the communities they are setting out to support. They are in the perfect position to be truly be able to assess the inner dynamics of the groups (Paris & Winn, 2014). With that support, hopefully the languages that are currently alive, and those that are attempting to be reintroduced will be able to thrive from this point on.
McCarthy, T. L. (2005). Indigenous epistemologies and education–self-determination, anthropology, and human rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, (36)1, 1-7.
Paris, D. & Winn, M. T. (2014). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Los Angles: Sage.
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