April 2, 2020

What We Lose When We Lose a Language

“The cultural practices and locales that define the hundreds of Native communities dotting the North American landscape are grounded in languages. Each is unique, with distinct dialects, accents, and slang. There are words, phrases, and concepts that do not exist in the American English lexicon, that confounding colonizer speech that Native Americans were forced to adopt and master. And nearly all of them are in danger of going extinct. In 1998, there were 175 Indigenous languages still in use within the United States. Today, there are 115. With each passing year, as elders are laid to rest and new babies are born, Native people lose their tongue.

Even though the English language was violently imposed, Native people have used it as a tool of struggle and beauty—as poet Tommy Pico said at a speaking engagement last month: “We didn’t ask for English, but it’s ours now, and look what we’re doing with it. You’re welcome.” While true, it still does not replace what is swiftly evaporating. As a Native person whose language was decimated and is only recently beginning to be stitched back together, I know the intangible feeling of hearing my own language through an elder’s voice on the phone or a cousin’s patient assistance in navigating a difficult pronunciation. It’s an experience of kinship that cannot fully be replicated in this second tongue. Learning a Native language is not only about knowledge or authenticity; it extends a symbol of a thriving and unique culture to the rising generation. It’s the cadence of survival. And if it goes silent, a great tradition is broken.

On Monday, in a small step to preserve this tradition, the House passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, named after the legendary Tewa linguist. With the Senate vote already in the bank, the measure is headed to President Trump’s desk. Like a variety of other set-term appropriation bills, the legislation, which was first passed under George W. Bush in 2006, has to be renewed by Congress every five years to maintain the funding. And like so many other necessary pieces of legislation, it is still deficient.”

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