Big Sky Science
__________ NATIVE STUDIES __________
If you call UM Professor Stephen Greymorning at his campus office, you may be surprised by what you hear on his voice mail message ...
Neneenino Neniice'ooke. Neihoowentoo'oh Ciibeh nooxe3ecoo hookoh konoo' heenetsi noh heetce' wooteikuutone3en.
That's Arapaho for "This is Stephen Greymorning. I'm not here right now, but don't worry, you can talk to me anyway and I'll phone you back."
Arapaho is one of hundreds of dying languages in the world today. It is a language spoken by the Northern Arapaho tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming and by Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma. Greymorning estimates that of the more than 5,000 people living on the Wind River reservation, only 600 to 800 people still speak the language. A Southern Arapaho from Oklahoma, Greymorning has made it his mission to hold back the tide of deculturalization that threatens to drown the Arapaho language.
"I believe if Indians lose their language it will be bad for all people," he says. "I am really worried if we lose our language we won't be able to think in the Arapaho way. If we lose our language we will lose our ceremonies and ourselves because our life is our language, and it is our language that makes us strong."
How do you save a language? Greymorning is doing it by directing the teaching of the language to the next generation on the Wind River reservation using methods he observed while studying the Punana Leo language immersion programs in Hawaii.
"It's fairly undisputed that immersion is the best way to teach a second language," Greymorning says. "I actually spent a week in a Hawaiian immersion preschool and I did a lot of videotaping. I taped their daily schedule, paid attention to when and how language was being used and when the language wasn't being used with the children. By my observations, throughout the course of their school year, they were essentially getting children fluent in the language after 600 hours of language contact, which is approximately three months."
Greymorning brought his findings back to the Wind River reservation, in hopes of teaching children Arapaho with similar success. Although Arapaho has been taught in schools since 1978, faculty and administration were reluctant to change how the language was being taught, so starting an immersion program proved difficult.
"The problem was -- and this is pretty standard across Indian country -- that when indigenous language is taught in school, only 15 minutes a day is allocated for teaching the language," Greymorning says. "That means students get about an hour a week, or 45 hours in an entire school year, to study the language. You can't expect anyone to master anything in that amount of time.
"There were a lot of complaints from teachers who taught the classical subjects that the Arapaho teachers weren't good and weren't doing their job because students weren't learning to speak the language, but nobody looked at why and it's fairly obvious."
Greymorning eventually started an immersion kindergarten class, as well as an immersion preschool, but the challenges continued. After an extensive interview process to find fluent Arapaho speakers who were willing to teach the language to young children, it was difficult to convince them that complete immersion was the best way to produce new fluent speakers.
"People have the idea that you have to break a new language down into vocabulary, to use the children's first language to teach them a second language," Greymorning says. "But with immersion, the teachers just speak in the language, so students learn the language as it is tied to concepts. The only reason language has meaning is that people have ascribed meaning to it and they transmit that meaning to other people. If there were a direct rather than abstract relationship between language and the real world, then everybody would understand everyone's language."
But even when teachers were convinced the immersion method worked and were practicing it in the classroom, the program didn't experience the success that Greymorning had witnessed in the Hawaiian program.
"The program in Hawaii initially had the same problems we're having, experiencing the same lack of success," Greymorning says. "They restructured and focused on creating adult second-language speakers through a program at the university level. These adult speakers were then placed in the classroom with a native speaker to teach the language as a team to young students."
Greymorning realized that for students to learn Arapaho, or any language, the teachers must understand and be fluent in not only the language, but also the language learning process as well.
"Second-language speakers have internalized the process they experienced to learn the language and understand the steps that need to happen to teach another person that language," Greymorning says. "But there are no programs in place that produce secondary Arapaho speakers."
So the immersion classes continue on the Wind River reservation without any second-language speakers as instructors, and although the teachers are improving and the students are learning faster every year, they have yet to become fluent.
"We are in a stage of very slow growth and it is very scary," Greymorning says. "Over the past two years I've been really pushing the instructors to try to get the kids beyond that point, into fluency, and they're slowly inching forward, but not at the rate they could be going."
But Greymorning isn't giving up. His quest for success on the Wind River reservation has led him all over the country, speaking to different indigenous people who are trying to save their native languages. He shares the insights he has gained from the Punana Leo program, from Maori programs in New Zealand, and from his own endeavors in Wyoming in the hopes that someone will be able to take the information and put together a successful program.
"People ask me why I'm so willing to share my information and ideas, why I give out so much information, do workshops, do language training, and it's because I never know who will take all of this and make it work," Greymorning says. "If I can expose enough people to the problem and somebody finally makes a program work, maybe I'll be able to go to them to find out how to make the Wind River program work."
But Greymorning, who predicts that 88 percent of the 179 indigenous languages spoken in North America today will be extinct by 2020, says he not only is searching for success on the Wind River reservation, but also is trying to spread the message that dying language is a world crisis.
"Language shapes how people give meaning to the world, and often the only way to get an idea of cultural differences is through the language," he says. "A language does some very interesting things that can give people an idea of the logic and values that distinguish one culture from another.
"It is important to save languages because they preserve the heritage and values of a culture and encourage diversity."
And diversity benefits everyone, Greymorning says.
"Our country is led by people who, for the most part, come from the same types of schools and have been educated in basically the same way," he says. "So when they try to solve a problem, many will take the same approach and that may not always be the best approach.
"Scientific experiments have shown that a people who speak more than one language access more of their brains to solve problems than people who speak only one language. If a person is thinking differently, they will often come to different or more varied solutions, or find those solutions in different ways."
Greymorning believes that if people are able to approach world problems from culturally diverse perspectives, it will lead to different, and even better, solutions.
-BY HOLLY FOX