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Language

Essay by 24  •  April 21, 2011  •  4,363 Words (18 Pages)  •  604 Views

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Though used every single day by every single person in the Minnesota legislature and the world beyond it, language is a vital tool that often goes unacknowledged. It seems like mere common sense to point out that we need language, as it is a vital tool for communication. To the average Minnesotan, however, the English language is synonymous with language or communication itself, and as long as we can communicate with one another, then English is sufficient for running a legislature, a country, or a world. What the majority of us may not realize, however, is that not all languages are created equal. The Dakota Ojibwe Language Revitalization Alliance (DOLRA) recognizes that non-dominant languages, indigenous languages in particular, are indispensable to the mindset and therefore the maintenance of Minnesota's native cultures. It is DOLRA's stance that the indigenous languages of Minnesota are in need of revitalization. Through immersion-style teaching, DOLRA hopes to help these languages to flourish once again. During the Minnesota Legislature's 85th session, Representative David Bly and Senator Patricia Torres-Ray collaborated with DOLRA to introduce House File 779 and Senate File 586, both of which propose an Indigenous Language Act consisting of a Council on Indigenous Language. Though there is extensive support for language revitalization initiatives, this bill has been stalled in the legislature due to internal contentions between DOLRA and the Indian Affairs Council (cite). The Council on Indigenous Language is unlikely to be enacted in its original form, as funding requests were too high to begin with. Its best chance for starting up will be to apply for a world language grant, included in House File 6, Representative Greiling's omnibus bill on education finance.

Background

Presently, it is estimated that 175 indigenous languages are still spoken in the United States (Crawford, 1998). One hundred and fifty-five of them, however, are considered moribund languages. This means that only elders still speak the language, yet they do not formally teach the language with the intention to keep it alive. One hundred and twenty-five of these languages are predicted to lose their last speakers by 2025 (Krauss, 1995). The cultural and linguistic diversity of the United States was affected Ð'- broadly speaking Ð'- not only by the destruction of native lands, but also by the pressures to assimilate to Western values and styles of life that operate around the English language. The death of languages to this day can be attributed to trade, migration, intermarriage, or religious conversion (Crawford). Perhaps most memorably, language death is associated with the late 19th Century initiative to eradicate indigenous language and culture through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native American children were taken to schools and permitted to speak only English. All the traditions and customs of Native Americans were assumed to be inferior to those of white "civilization". This method of language death is considered "language murder".

It is a source of debate, however, as to whether languages die as a result of "murder" or "suicide". Crawford (1998) argues that it is impossible to separate the two, as the choice to abandon a language out of practicality necessarily intersects with a mandated assimilation (often through discrimination) in order to meet basic needs. In other words, social forces underlie the choice of whether to pass on one's language. He points out that linguistic assimilation was more efficient after coercive policies were repealed. This is most likely because English has become the only language for social and economic mobility.

Language retention is important because language helps organize the mind. Though language does not determine the way one thinks, it inspires alternative possibilities to that which is "thinkable". Language allows one to articulate their reality and the loss of languages means the loss of non-dominant realities Ð'- that is, alternatives to the way things are. Moreover, the loss of language means the loss of native identity. A coherent identity is necessary before seemingly more pertinent issues that plague native populations can even be solved.

So what does it take to revitalize a language? First of all, speed is necessary due to the rapid decline of elders who speak fluently. A first step is to create orthographies, grammar books, and dictionaries in conjunction with one's elders. Next, teachers must be trained to pass on the language to large groups of students, especially children in school. There are strong arguments for teaching language in an immersion setting. In fact, language immersion has been shown to improve overall school performance, stimulate complex problem solving, and increase the self-esteem of students (DOLRA, 2004). The former two findings can be explained by the concept of dual competency: students who learn language through immersion make direct connections in their brains between the new language and the concepts, rather than having to use their first language as a mediator. Therefore, these increased neural connections improve overall brain function and result in increased English comprehension. Also, immersion programs have already been shown to be successful in Israel with Hebrew, in Hawaii with Hawaiian, and in New Zealand with Maori (Crawford, 1998).

While there are many active proponents of language revitalization, not all of them support this particular bill. (section about opponents, who lobbied against it). The proponents include DOLRA, Representative Bly, Senator Torres-Ray, Jennifer Bendickson of the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals, and John Poupard, president of the American Indian Policy Center. Those pulling for the bill tend to point out the urgency behind the effort, the link with language and community coherence and engagement, the link between language and improved test scores, and the link between language and increased self-esteem and greater sense of identity.

Bill History

DOLRA approached this legislative session with a strong agenda surrounding language revitalization. Their goal is to establish language immersion rooms in every pre-school on reservations and in urban areas with large Native American populations, to provide at least one immersion classroom for each grade in schools serving Native American populations, to develop higher education programs that train teachers in immersion curriculum, and to engage the community through the use of community language programs. The first draft of their bill, crafted with help from Revisor Sandy Glass-Sirany, reported the "legislative findings" on indigenous language, including

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