What's Lost When a Language Dies?

Only Our Grandchildren Will Know.

 The story, at least so far, spans three decades and three continents. She came by plane, flying over the Pacific, leaving Tokyo behind. He came by ship, crossing the Atlantic, looking back at his home in Istanbul. Their paths would zig and zag, until one day they would meet in, of all places, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each brought a homeland, each brought a native tongue; yet they lived in a third land, communicated in a third language. And this third realm would become home--perhaps more home than the homes they left behind. And their unusual union would produce two children, a boy and a girl. They would know this place, America, as home. But they would know that part of them came from far-off corners they could scarcely imagine, let alone understand.

These children would grow and think and learn. They would do this in English. The girl would grow up, one day, and visit the far-flung lands of her origins with her parents, at once learning about the histories of these foreign places and the histories of her foreign families. She would study languages herself, German, French, even a bit of Japanese, with varying degrees of proficiency. She would spend her days working on her English--not the grammar, nor vocabulary, but the crafting of phrases. And she would find herself, one September afternoon, in a circle of two dozen high school students, trying to make the sounds of the ancient, sacred language of Dakota.


Fred Petters

Toked eniciyapi he?
What's your name?


Our teacher, University of Minnesota instructor Neil McKay, is working through a list of Dakota language words and phrases, asking us to repeat them so we can practice the correct pronunciation. He says a word--okanna, which means grandfather--and asks us to say it back. The teenagers respond, as teenagers will, with barely audible mumbling. What is it about learning a new language that's so very uncomfortable? It's like standing at the bottom of a craggy mountain. You understand everything here, right where you are. But if you start to climb into this unfamiliar territory, your thoughts must be compressed down into the skeletal language you possess. It's scary not to be able to say what you want or understand what's going on around you. But if you slowly, steadily, climb the hill, the vista may be quite beautiful.

Myself, this is my favorite part. Mimicking the unfamiliar sounds of a new language. Figuring out the architecture of a foreign grammar. Learning a rudimentary vocabulary. Some people like to solve riddles of logic or discover visual patterns; I like the puzzle of a new language. It's like unlocking a secret code that opens up an entirely new world of possibility. Yesterday you had no idea how to say "cousin" in Dakota, or "window" in French, or "fish" in Japanese. Today you do. This is the fun stage, before the struggle begins as you try to really speak and listen and think and dream in this foreign tongue. This is long before the frustration hits, sparked because you don't know how to say anything more complicated than cousin or window or fish.

Most of the teens sitting here were born a century after the federal Indian boarding school movement took off in the late 1870s. From then until 1920--and sometimes even later--Indian children were plucked from their homes and placed in government-run schools whose main mission was assimilation, or the "civilizing" of Indians to accept Christian values and speak English. They were forced to abandon their traditional ways of dress, their ceremonial and religious beliefs. And they were forbidden to speak their native languages. In many published accounts of their days in boarding schools throughout the country, Native Americans describe facing cruel punishment for breaking the "English-only" rules. Some recall being beaten or spanked or slapped with rulers. Others were made to live on only bread and water or were locked in the school jail. Still others had to brush their teeth with lye.

As a result of this abuse--and the prevailing notion that their own cultures and languages were somehow dirty and inferior--many of the students sent to boarding schools never became fluent speakers of their own language. They could not pass the language down to future generations. Even those who did retain their language skills often opted not to teach their children, for fear that they would face the same discrimination. Over the years fewer and fewer American Indians learned to speak their own languages. And so it is that even generations later, these kids are suffering the consequences.

Sitting at my right in the circle is Rebecca. She is 17 years old. She exudes 17-year-oldness, at once bubbly and shy, as eager to learn as she is to laugh. She wears low-cut jeans and black boots with a chunky high heel. Her chestnut hair is streaked with gold highlights, cropped close to her face to reveal multiple earrings. Her eyes are an unusual shade of bright violet--colored contact lenses, she explains. Purple is her favorite color.

Rebecca is from the Flandreau Reservation in South Dakota. She is one of a group of students from her high school that squished into a van and traveled six hours to attend this conference on the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota. The program, sponsored by the American Indian Studies Department, the nonprofit Grotto Foundation, and other organizations, hopes to raise awareness that it's now or never: Without concentrated efforts to promote and revitalize it, the ancient language could one day become extinct.

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