Language Loss

In their introduction to Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights, McCarty and her team of guest co-editors presented a series of questions related to Indigenous education that they believed to be best explored by scholars.  The core questions were the meaning of self-determination, the placement of Indigenous epistemologies inside and outside the classroom, how human rights are implicated in these questions and their responses, and what the field of anthropology’s contribution to Indigenous peoples might be in the present and future, given the field’s damaging role in the past.  The editors acknowledged difficulty in defining some of these key terms and were careful to include the definitions they used.

I found this introduction to be insightful and educational.  For instance, I did not realize that Indigenous peoples speak such a large percentage of the world’s languages.  Based on the numbers cited by the editors, Indigenous peoples speak between 66 and 83 percent of the world’s languages despite only comprising 4 percent of the world’s population.  That’s amazing! The editors wrote that language is important because it contains local knowledge and ways of knowing.  Unfortunately, the editors also presented evidence that many of these languages are endangered because they are only spoken by older generations.  Unless patterns change, these languages will be lost when the elders who speak them pass.

The topic of language loss is personally relevant to me because I am a Latino who does not speak Spanish.  My Spanish-speaking parents made the choice to refrain from teaching me English because they wanted me to assimilate to the mainstream English-speaking culture.  My father said he didn’t want me to be teased for speaking English improperly as he had been when he was a child.  He also wanted me to do well in school, where classes were taught in English.

I wound up picking up basic Spanish by taking classes in high school and as an undergraduate in college, however, I am far from proficient.  As a result, I feel disconnected from my ethnic culture, and I feel shame that I don’t speak Spanish.  Not being able to communicate in Spanish makes me feel like I’m a “bad” Latino.  I’m especially annoyed when I am around people speaking in Spanish and I can’t understand them or when I’m listening to a salsa song and don’t know what it means.  The worst is when someone asks me if I speak Spanish (usually a fellow Latino or Latina who would like to converse with me in that language) and I have to tell that person that I don’t.  It’s like being exposed and having to confess my faults.

This makes me wonder: how do Indigenous youth feel about their inability to speak the language of their parents and grandparents?  Do they feel shame, as I do?  Are they angry about the cultural, economic, and political forces that are causing their Indigenous languages to be lost?  Has their language loss affected their cultural identity or pride?  If so, in what ways and to what extent?  Are these youth making or have they made any attempts to reclaim or save their language?  Or, are they indifferent?  What is the basis for their feelings?  Given how highly diverse Indigenous peoples are, I would suspect the answers vary.  I think it would be interesting to know percentages of each attitude toward language loss and perhaps see comparisons of attitudes toward language loss based on language.


McCarty, T.L. (2005). Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 1-7.


Languages Need to Live

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.


Turning a New Leaf: The Realization of Exclusion

Teresa L. McCarty (2005) in the “Editor’s Introduction” of Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determined, Anthropology, and Human Rights, discusses several insightful points about indigenous history, language, and education.

I know this article was short in length but it was full of great information that I had never considered before. Personally, I had never had a draw or connection with indigenous studies, articles, or news. Every so often, working in higher education, I would hear about different indigenous issues and brush it off. It was not really until this article and this doctoral class that I really begin to take a different stance at looking and considering the many influences affecting indigenous populations.

One of the main reasons that I began to connect and wonder about indigenous populations was the use of the term ‘ally’. In the last sentence of the article, McCarty (2005) states, “We hope the articles…assembled here lead the way toward transformation…for indigenous people and their allies to build the…cultural infrastructures required to nurture self-determination in education” (p. 4). It was the first time that I had even considered that indigenous people need an ally to help support and protect their interests. I was so used to the term ‘ally’ referring to the LGBTQ population, that I never considered that other populations would need the same support – support from those who are not indigenous or connected to indigenous cultures.

I was also fascinated about the complexities and importance of language to indigenous people. McCarty (2005) opened my eyes to the fact that indigenous populations speak approximately 5000 out of the 6000 known languages. However, although there are thousands of languages, languages are disappearing at an alarming rate which researchers refer to as linguicide (McCarty, 2005). A lot of the reason for their disappearance is the dominance of other languages specifically in educational and urban environments. The author emphasized that languages are epicenters to indigenous populations as they are carriers of identity, knowledge, and ways of knowing, underlining that with a loss of language, there is a loss of history and culture (McCarty, 2005). One way in which to preserve languages is through the implementation of indigenous languages in education. By implementing specific indigenous languages in targeted areas of education, we begin to protect that particular population’s culture and history.

One way that language can be revitalized in education is through universities and language development course work. By implementing programs and spaces for students to have everyday speaking interactions, education can help keep the language alive and thriving (McCarty, 2005). By helping to teach and keep these languages alive, we help support a population that was “burned by centuries of repression, marginalization,and negation” (McCarty, p. 4, 2005).

I am excited to be expanding my education by reflecting and engaging in new information. Because of this class and this article, I can definitely say that I will work on being a better and more educated ally. Which in turn means being more educated about many different types of educational aspects through a willingness to listen and discover new areas of education and its populations.


McCarthy, T. (2005). Indigenous epistemologies and education self-determination, anthropology, and human rights. Anthropology Education Quarterly, 36, 1-7.

Powers of Perception

Watching a video demonstrates how our eyes can fool us through our interpretation of visual data we gather from the familiar world. The video shows a man who walks into a room with a very simple scene. The room contains a chair, a table with two tea cups and saucers sitting on top, and a hanging portrait on the wall behind him. What we don’t realize from our perspective is that the room is much different than it appears. The first object the man interacts with is the tea cup and saucer closest to him, which proves to be of normal size. Next, the man walks towards the camera and within a foot of the camera picks up what is now a miniature size chair and sets it beside the teacup and saucer. As he then walks toward the back of the room, it becomes plain that it is farther back than first assumed. We now see that the second tea cup is as large as a basketball and the saucer is as round as a serving platter. The final deception is revealed as he again approaches the camera to remove the hanging portrait which sits no further than an inch from the lens and is the size of a lady bug. I describe this scene because it exemplifies how “Data do not tell us a story. We use data to craft a story that comports with our understanding of the world.” (Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi, 2008) It seems that every crime show like CSI I’ve ever watched, someone says to let the evidence tell the story. I think it would be better to say we have evidence to support the story we’re telling and be aware that we’re not totally objective. The truth of research is never without some dependence on our individual learned perception.

Despite the failures to be objective it is important to have a positive approach to research. I connected our perceptions to the idea that is the background of my topic of inquiry; “exploiting the strengths of Communities of Color”(Yosso, 2005). The whole effort to explain why students of color do not progress at the same rate as whites (Yosso, 2005) may be addressed by the methods schools use for instruction. Not all students and communities learn the same way and it may be possible that the methods of instruction can be learned from within the community. I don’t think there is anyone who would not agree that our education system needs a face lift. I question if communities will ever collectively have the force of will to break the mold by abandoning the models of instruction that have used for over 100 years.

Smith brings up a good point on behalf of indigenous people. Academic writing does not support or even talk about the indigenous people’s way of life and therefore is giving the impression that it isn’t important.  As a result indigenous history effectively being replaced by another history “about the powerful and how they became powerful”(Smith, 2006).  I fear the indigenous Maori efforts “to carry out research which recovers histories, reclaims lands and resources and restores justice, hardly seems possible.”(Smith, 2006) Perception changes things. First, it doesn’t seem possible to recover what is now history without having experienced it. It’s like watching a movie, where historical events become modern interpretations. Consequently, all of the Maori efforts to recover history will probably lead to a lot of uncertainty. Second, the idea of reclaiming land is a contradiction. The whole idea of owning and claiming land is imperialistic in nature. In truth, what rights do any of us have to land?

Acknowledge that research and knowledge begin with an inquiry and the answers are going to be different with everyone you ask. No one perceives things with an identical interpretation. Therefore, all we’re left with is more uncertainty. However, take comfort, while uncertainty is an “individual endeavor, managing it is a social endeavor” (Jordan and McDaniel, 2014) so you’re not alone.



Jordan, M. E., & McDaniel, R. R. (2010). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 00(2002), 1–47.


Power of Perspective – Mind Tricks Illusion. Retrieved 06, 2014, from


Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. New York: University of Otago Press


Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, (8)1, 69-91.


Zuberi, T. (2008). White logic, white methods: racism and methodology. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.