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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saving Our Languages: A Tip from the Navajo

UNESCO recently estimated that of the 6000+ languages of the world 2500 are on the verge of extinction. In the Philippines, four of our 175 languages have been declared dead.¹ The Organization's Director-General Koichiro Matsuura noted well why all should be concerned about the extinction of languages:




“The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.” ²



Why the rapid language attrition rate?  Katharine Whittermore in her essay, "Endangered Languages," notes three major reasons: television (broadcasting industry privileges language of the majority), increased literacy ("As more native people receive formal education,  schools cannot print textbooks in every language"), and hegemony (cultural imperialism).

For those of us who wish to help preserve and enrich our respective languages, we can perhaps learn from the "Navajo way" as described by Whittemore:

The Navajo have been particularly skillful at keeping their language alive. In order to get their Anglicized kids to see that Navajo is worthy knowing, tribe educators work on giving it cachet.  Administrators bring hip, Navajo-speaking artists and musicians to school regularly, to drive home the notion that 'speaking Navajo is cool,' as Whaley [linguistics and classics professor at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH] says.³



¹ Data from www.ethnologue.com.

² Lifted from portal.unesco.org.

³ in Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, & Virginia Clark, eds., Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers, 8th ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000), 350.