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The vast majority of Native American languages are no longer being transmitted from parent to child, and an increasing number have no living native speakers at all. The decline of these languages is tragic in the eyes of their communities and a great loss to American posterity. Yet at the same time, there is a large and growing movement of language revitalization taking place in hundreds of American Indian communities. They are developing new ways of transmitting their languages through language classes, immersion schools, language camps, master-apprentice programs, and programs to bring the language back into the family.
But for languages with no speakers at all, is there any hope? There are many people who have been able to show that the answer to that question is "yes." If the language has been documented, that documentation can be employed in the revitalization process. Over the centuries, Native American languages that are now no longer spoken have been documented through writing and later audio recording, often extensively. There are old and new testaments translated by missionaries teaming up with native speakers of Native American languages. There is massive documentation of many languages done over the centuries by anthropologists and linguists; and for tribes who went through a period of literacy before they ceased to use their languages, there are letters, newspapers, and other documents of their own making. In the twentieth century there was also the development of audio recording, and archives around the United States have cared for wax cylinders and tapes, and have tried to keep up with technology by transferring them to the new media. Because of the hope that documentation brings, we eschew the term "extinct" for languages with no speakers, and prefer to call them "dormant," or "sleeping."
Two such important archives are the holdings at the Library of Congress and the National Anthropological Archives. Gathered here during the weeks of June 13-24 are close to sixty American Indian participants and linguists who will be working together in the archives to find materials on over twenty endangered or sleeping languages, and to learn how to utilize them for language revitalization. The Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages is funded by a Documenting Endangered Languages grant from NSF, and is sponsored by the Endangered Languages Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Breath of Life Archival Institute is modeled after the venerable Breath of Life Language Workshop, a program for California Indians striving to learn languages without the benefit of native speakers, which was developed by the University of California at Berkeley and the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. This biennial event has been taking place since 1993. At the Institute, mornings are spent at the Museum of the American Indian, and are devoted to lectures and workshops on linguistics, language teaching, and curriculum and lesson planning. Afternoons are spent at the archives, studying materials on the participants' languages. Participants will also be able to visit the Smithsonian's collections of cultural items. On the final day of the institute, the participants will present projects based on their research.
What will come of this research? The primary aim of the Institute is to help participants find ways to use the documentation of the languages in their efforts at language revitalization. The goals of language revitalization are generally to bring people to fluency in the endangered language, to bring the language back into use in the community, and perhaps ultimately to re-establish the natural process of transmission of the language across generations. Language documentation can help people working toward these goals by restoring lost vocabulary, grammar, recorded oral literature, and cultural knowledge to the communities they come from.
One of the main instructors of this Institute, Daryl Baldwin, is a great example of how this can work. The last speaker of his language, Myaamia, died before Daryl was born. But Daryl, with the help of an MA in Linguistics, has learned his language through the study of the massive documentation that exists on Myaamia, and as he learned it, he also made it the language of his home. His four children are native speakers of the language. Daryl has also been a strong leader of language revitalization in his community, working with a committee of language activists to lead summer camps, run classes on Myaamia language and culture at Miami University where Daryl is a professor, and producing books and materials for families. There are other people around the nation who have made advances toward revitalization of sleeping languages. Also, documentation can play a very strong role in the revitalization of languages that still have speakers. Dictionaries, bodies of texts such as sacred tales and cultural narratives, and recordings of storytellers, interviews, and conversations in the language all play important roles in the revitalization of endangered languages.
The participants in this institute are all language activists from communities making strong efforts toward language revitalization. We hope that these two weeks will provide them with materials and ideas that will help them toward their goals.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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