FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
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LOST LEWIS AND CLARK
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A HAZARDOUS WORLD
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Cover: An illustration of UM's Main Hall tower bathed in the glow of a fictitious smoldering Earth.
Vision is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Joan Melcher, Rita Munzenrider, Patia Stephens and Alex Strickland. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
UM helps rescue fading indigenous voices
By Patia Stephens
Why save a language?
And more importantly, how?
These are tough questions that individuals, scholars and cultures in Montana and beyond are grappling with. Of the 6,000 languages once spoken globally, less than a tenth remained at the end of the 20th century. Of the 300 or more languages spoken on the North American continent when Europeans first arrived, more than half have gone extinct. Many more will die soon with their elderly speakers.
In Montana, 11 languages are spoken by American Indians, to varying degrees. One local language experiencing a renaissance is Blackfeet, thanks to the efforts of the Piegan Institute’s language immersion school in Browning and its director, Darrell Robes Kipp.
Kipp is an adviser to and one of 22 tribal representatives interviewed in the documentary film, “Why Save a Language?” released on DVD last fall by UM’s Regional Learning Project.
In the film, Kipp answers the title question this way: “Language matters to each group and individual because it represents the blueprint for thinking. And as a result it focuses how we see the world around us, how we hear the world around us and how we experience the world around us.”
UM anthropologist Sally Thompson produced “Why Save a Language?” after conducting more than 100 interviews with members of 27 tribes during research for the Regional Learning Project, which she directs. With support from UM Continuing Education, the grant-funded, five-person staff produces K-12 classroom resources, including films, teaching guides, maps and Web sites. The project also offers continuing teacher education via workshops and online courses.
Thompson says, “Our focus is the history, geography and cultures of the place where we live. It’s an antidote to watered-down, generalized teaching of our history.”
During her interviews with tribal members, Thompson realized that saving indigenous languages was one of their key concerns.
“When I realized this was such a priority for people — young and old, fluent and nonfluent — I knew it was my responsibility to do what I could.”
The resulting 27-minute documentary is a compelling look at Indian languages, ranging from the conscious language-eradication efforts of the boarding-school era to the reasons these languages matter and efforts to save them.
In the film, Kipp equates saving a language with saving not only a culture, but also the wisdom contained within that spoken tongue.
“I think the crucial answer for us when we are asked ‘Why save our language?’ is simply this: Intelligent people do not burn down libraries today. And languages are these enormous libraries, if you look at it, and so why would we want to destroy the largest library that contains all the knowledge, the accumulated knowledge of this tribe over thousands of years? Why would we not want to preserve that?
“Languages are repositories of tribal thought, botany, genesis, philosophy, humor, you name it,” Kipp continues. “And they require care.”
Malcolm Wolf, a Mandan-Hidatsa elder interviewed in the film, says language also has spiritual implications for Native people.
“Our people say the word of mouth is sacred,” Wolf says. “It was given to us in the beginning of time, not only to communicate, but to communicate with our higher power. That’s why it was given to us.”
The response to “Why Save a Language?” has been overwhelmingly positive, Thompson says. It has been shown at conferences, school-board meetings, film festivals and a recent language summit in Washington, D.C. One organization even bought 50 copies to send to members of Congress.
a Library of Language
Mattina, who continues to teach on a post-retirement contract, has spent his 36 years at UM not just instructing students on the science of language, but also documenting the endangered family of Salish languages and helping Native speakers of one of those languages, Okanagan, preserve it for future generations.
His slight accent belying his Italian nativity, Mattina explains that saving indigenous languages is vital to preserving linguistic diversity.
“Why would you want to save a species?” he says. “It’s no different from protecting endangered species.”
The Northwest’s 23 Salish languages are indeed endangered. One — Upper Chehalis of coastal Washington — recently became extinct, Mattina says, when its last speaker, Silas Heck, died. Another, Coeur d’Alene of Northern Idaho, is nearly extinct. Beginning with his doctoral research in 1968, Mattina’s life’s work has been to help salvage and revitalize Salish languages.
“These are just 23 of 6,000 languages [spoken in the world],” he says, “but somebody has to do it.”
In 1980, Mattina initiated a book series, “The University of Montana Occasional Papers in Linguistics,” to document Salish languages. The UMOPL series began with the master’s thesis of one of his students and has grown to 19 volumes, including his own “Colville-Okanagan Dictionary” (1987).
Mattina’s work with the Colville-Okanagan tribes of Washington and British Columbia has included training Native speakers in linguistics.
“The goal here is to train speakers of that ancestry to be fluent speakers, analysts and promoters of the language,” he says. “Outsiders can do all they want, but only insiders can save the language.”
Mattina has devoted many hours to recording, transcribing and publishing — with biographical notes by relatives — the stories of tribal elders. He is quick to explain that the copyrights for these materials remain with the tribe.
“I want these to be published for them,” he says. Indeed, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have come to him seeking recordings of their relatives that he made decades ago.
He’s also written textbooks and computer programs for all ages, produced lesson plans for high school and college students, and designed coloring books for children — all with the goal of teaching Salish.
Mattina’s efforts were honored with the 2005 Ken Hale Prize by the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. The SSILA award recognizes those who, like its namesake, combine “excellent linguistic research with strong service to a community of speakers.”
a New Way to Learn
Although Amber is of Arapaho heritage, her first language is English. But after only 5 hours and 15 minutes of instruction in Arapaho by UM Professor Stephen Neyooxet Greymorning, she has mastered the language to a remarkable degree.
Greymorning, who teaches anthropology and Native American studies at UM, says Amber’s language mastery is typical of those who learn using the teaching method he developed, Accelerated Second Language Acquisition.
Aside from pure immersion programs, few other teaching methods have seen much success.
“People have been trying to teach heritage languages for 30 years,” Greymorning says. “Statistically, there has not been any significant increase in the numbers of indigenous peoples learning their heritage language. Whatever people are doing out there is not the right stuff.”
Greymorning spent years frustrated by the limited success of existing teaching methods, as well as the lack of time, money and resources faced by tribes attempting to save their Native languages. Then he made an observation that led to the development of ASLA.
“I started looking at how children learn their first language,” he says. “I realized that before children learn to speak, they have developed competency in understanding language. They can understand before they can speak.”
Suddenly, Greymorning understood that traditional teaching techniques, which rely heavily on memorization, ran counter to how babies learn. Human brains are wired to absorb language before processing it and then attempting to reproduce it.
“Once you can hear the language with understanding, then you can learn how to speak it,” he says. “When you weave those three things together — hearing, understanding and speech production — you have a very strong fabric.”
So Greymorning began developing a technique that focused on acquisition rather than memorization. Then he tried out his ideas in a UM Introduction to Arapaho class he taught in spring 2005.
“I wanted to test this method,” he says. “What happened next was totally unexpected. In literally 6 minutes the students had learned a week’s worth of material. … I skipped to the third week. In 20 minutes they had acquired 16 nouns and 40 verb phrases.
“I was not even teaching,” he exclaims.
Since his discovery, Greymorning has taught three ASLA classes at UM and traveled throughout North America giving intensive workshops on his methods. He has instructed speakers of more than 40 different language groups in the United States and recently went to Australia and New Zealand to teach and lecture to indigenous groups there.
Teachers and students have offered testimonials about ASLA, saying, “The kids love it, they are engaged, and feel like finally, they are able to put the language together” (Alaska); “Students are reluctant to leave after their allotted time, often staying behind to ask for more” (New Brunswick, Canada).
Greymorning plans to continue traveling and giving workshops. He is resistant to publishing details about ASLA in articles and journals, saying it is more effective to teach the technique directly to teachers.
“It’s too easy to misinterpret or misunderstand what’s being written,” he says. “The teacher has to understand how to present this as a learner.”
As Amber demonstrates in the video, ASLA enables learners to begin grasping language almost instinctively.
“It gets people to start thinking and problem-solving,” Greymorning says. “They intuitively start self-correcting. The ability to understand can happen instantaneously.”