The death and rebirth of languages
As globalization becomes increasingly more vital in both the professional and social worlds, stress is continually being placed on multilingualism. Children are taught Spanish, French, Chinese and many other languages in school, and international business relations often necessitate the use of translators or the hiring of bilingual employees.
While some languages are seeing an increase in fluent speakers, others are seeing declines and even complete losses. Indigenous languages in particular are suffering as they fail to be passed down through families. In the 21st century alone, eight languages have gone extinct, including one that went extinct on Oct. 2, according to the BBC. However, many communities are teaming up with linguists and scholars to revive their native languages through immersion programs, social events and archive maintenance.
The Cayuga language, which is part of the Iroquois family of languages, is one that is in the process of being revived. The Cayuga people currently live in New York, Ontario and Oklahoma, and many regional communities are developing programs and curricula to pass on the language.
Carrie Dyck, principal investigator in the Cayuga: Our Oral Legacy project, has been working with the Cayuga language since 1993 and published a dictionary in 2000. After a three-year grant for the archiving and maintenance of Cayuga language recordings expired in 2008, Dyck sought a Community University Research Alliance grant, which would provide $1 million in funding over a five-year period.
“The idea [of CURA grants] was that the research you could create with a university working with a community is different and newer and in some ways better,” Dyck said. “It’s a new type of research that universities could really benefit from, and the communities as well.”
A large component of COOL is its Master Apprentice Program, which was developed in 2010. “You link up elders, or masters, with language apprentices, who are adults or younger people who are learning the language as a second language,” Dyck said. “It’s a mini immersion program with two people, basically.”
Students would learn the language through transcription, recordings, grammar study and asking questions of the fluent elders, and intermediate speakers found that this was the most effective way to learn the language.
COOL also works in curriculum development so graduates of the apprentice program can return and teach others. Many schools in the area, including Six Nations Polytechnic Institute in Ohsweken, Ontario and McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario, are offering night classes for adults interested in learning Cayuga.
Alongside COOL, the Woodland Cultural Center in Brantford, Ontario has been working on the preservation and revitalization of Cayuga, as well as the other languages of the Six Nations territory. Angie Monture, the language administrative assistant at the center, said the facility offers instruction in Cayuga and Mohawk for school-aged children and adults, and more emphasis is being placed on the younger generations learning the language.
“The average age of a fluent speaker is 60 years and up,” Monture said. “They are trying to get the babies speaking their own language as a first language instead of using English.”
CURA has also provided funding for the Yawenda project, which has worked to revive the Huron-Wendat language on the Wendake reserve in Quebec. Huron-Wendat has not been spoken in over 100 years and was resurrected using research from a 2007 CURA grant awarded to Louis-Jacques Dorais, a retired anthropology professor at Université Laval in Quebec. Dorais was approached by some of his students from the Wendake reserve who were interested in a revival program. Dorais said the primary goals of the project were to reconstruct the language as well as train teachers for Wendake schools.
“The first missionaries who came to the Wendat area back in the 17th and 18th centuries wrote a number of grammars and dictionaries of the language,” Dorais said. These archives were analyzed using historic linguistics and knowledge of modern Iroquois language to track the evolution of Huron-Wendat to its most modern form.
Funding for these projects is crucial to their success, and many of these programs could not have happened without government grants. Monture said that the center used to offer Mohawk instruction for preschool students but lost funding, reducing the education to only Cayuga. “That’s the biggest issue with anyone who is working in the field of language or revitalizing a language, getting funding,” Monture said.
Another conflict these programs have encountered is the question of traditional education over the curricula developed from these grants. Six Nations began a private immersion school program for children from kindergarten to grade 12, but the curricula developed by the community had to be replaced to meet provincial standards; while the program is still taught in Cayuga, it also includes math, science and other subjects that students have to learn.
However, the most important component to these programs is the community aspect of language. Monture said that the Woodland Cultural Center has “really made a difference” in the development of the Cayuga language, as children who went through the program are coming back to teach or perform the ceremonies, which is crucial for the continuation of the culture. The community involvement is also largely responsible for the success of the programs.
“I think that, in a way, it’s why the project, in my opinion, had good success” Dorais said. “I think that this kind of project, the university-community research project, has a better chance of succeeding if it comes from the community.”
Amanda Hutchinson is a sophomore journalism major who wants to revive the language she invented in first grade. Email her at ahutchi2[at]ithaca.edu.