THE BLOG

America the Multilingual

12/27/2012 11:59 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

A language dies every fourteen days. According to many modern linguists, including Grenoble and Whaley, half of the worlds six to seven thousand languages will be gone in the next century. This is undoubtedly due to colonial forces over the last several hundred years and the globalizing prospects of capitalism and world-sized religions. For Native American people and scholars, the prospects are terrifying. We have heard through American Indian systems of education the mantra, "kill the Indian, save the man," and the Indian is on the verge of dying.

But this is not some romantic notion of the End of the Trail or the frozen image of the Curtis Native American. This is the reality that people die in the modern age due to the genocidal actions of an insatiable America. I think about English Only signs and legislation, and about Euroamerican people worried about becoming minorities, even though their experience of being a statistical minority in no way parallels the experiences of Americaʼs poor, enslaved, dispossessed, and marginalized populations.

This is not a guilt trip, or a contest about who has had it ethnically worse as far as globalizing circumstances. There is a discussion of accountability, but it does not begin with concepts of money, apologies, or legislation. States are not going to open their doors to Native American languages as official languages of the state, yet. That should and will happen if we are compassionate human beings who are conscious of history and humanity, but it will take a great deal of time and effort. Native North American language programs are going to consistently struggle to make ends meet and to inspire their populations in the face of mass media English bombardments.

While this is occurring, we will still see cultural atrocities like a "manifest destiny" t-shirt, and ignorance and cultural appropriation in the form of sexuality or hipness in music videos and fashion. But these are just distractions in the race for modern realizations about how to create social change. It happens, in the case of reversing language shift, in small locations that focus on individuals and communities and link themselves with others who are doing the same.

To speak in specifics: every Native American language is in extreme danger. Some of them are looking at language death in the next decade, and some are trying to just stabilize the number of children who are learning and speaking their ancestral languages. This is not a national crisis, and it never has been. It is a localized tragedy that few people give enough attention, but once these deaths occur then we lose ways of seeing and knowing that never return.

One of our most precious elders in Tlingit country, Khaajakhwtí (Walter Soboleff), said "When people know who they are, they don't kill themselves." This should be considered carefully since Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rates in the nation, especially among our youth. Everyone needs to know this: removing languages and cultures and replacing them with something else kills people. It killed them then, it kills them now, it will kill them in the future.

In the case of North American languages, suicide and homicide and genocide become strangely interchangeable terms. The people committing physical suicide are mimicking our cultures, nations, and communities as they commit linguistic suicide. And most everyone else stands idle. We have linguists who heroically raise attention to matters, such as Michael Krauss and Leanne Hinton to name a couple. We have people who work themselves tirelessly to bring fluency back to homes and children.

But the most troubling thing that I see in much of Native America is people choosing to let their languages go. Now, I say this with great hesitation because I do not want to overlook the fact that we are in the aftermath of the greatest act of human genocide. Populations in North America may have gone from upwards of sixty million to one million in the course of three hundred years, and many of those deaths came within the first few generations of contact. Meanwhile, calculated and effective methods of cultural and physical elimination took place in the forms of language suppression, child abuse, sexual abuse, environmental abuse, sterilization, and murder.

But still, our people do not have to be victims. We do not have to wait for heroes or for America to declare itself a nation of diverse languages. These places we know as the United States and Canada housed upwards of five hundred languages, and we are down to about half of that, with a great many of them ready to die in the next two decades. Each of those deaths is the conclusion of a chapter that started with a desire or need to kill off entire nations of people.

Why are we not talking about this? Why is there not a national movement to change the way we see ourselves as a nation? America could not have been born without these deaths, but that does not mean we cannot redefine ourselves. This is true for every single one of us. No one is free from the consequences of choosing to do nothing but let them die, and that statement goes double for those who are born into endangered languages.

As people of nations and cultures, we need to speak our languages. In order to stop them from dying, we only need to speak them: in our homes, to our children, to each other, on our land. It will redefine who we are, and it will be the single largest act of defiance we can make today towards a past that tried to kill us off. We can redefine ourselves as multilingual and become leaders for the rest of the nation. We can teach ourselves so many things about our ancestors, our children, our land, and ourselves.

In the film We Still Live Here - Âs Nutayuneân, the narrator says that we have been asking our elders why we are losing our languages. The elders responded by saying that it is not the languages that are lost, but it is you. We cannot continue to commit linguistic suicide, and the nation should not commit linguistic genocide. Instead, we should be looking towards becoming a nation that is responsible and ready for the positive changes that will come in embracing the languages that were born out of this land.

There is nothing that is more natural to the American landscape than Native American languages, and nothing will be able to replace them. If our people continue to choose not to speak--and that is what is happening, because no one is physically stopping you--then our young people will continue to lose themselves. We can pay people to learn and teach our languages the same as we can pay people to file papers, apply for grants, clean offices, and administrate programs. We are the ones, the Tribes and Tribal organizations, that declare what we value.

If America chooses to continue on as it is now, without stopping to help up those that it has attempted to destroy, then it is truly the descendent of great murderers and displacers of Indians. You cannot make such moves without now taking an active role in stopping the great death that is now taking place.

Multilingual children have been shown to score higher in cognitive tests, and bilingual adults show more resistance to degenerative brain conditions at older ages. We can teach our children, collectively, about the wisdoms that have developed in places all across our nations, and do so in a way that honors what those knowledge systems really are instead of what they translate to. America's children can learn to get along a lot better than we have. There are piles of reasons to choose a different path for our languages.

The most dangerous notion that I have ever heard is that there is some form of linguistic progress going on here, that people chose to stop speaking outdated languages. That would be like choking someone and explaining that they chose not to breathe. And anyone who has studied Native American languages would know that the idea of one language being more advanced is tied to the concepts that one race is superior to another. I would invite anyone in the world into my class to study my language, to see its beauty and complexity, and to be a part of a revitalization effort that can change the course of human history for the better.

Speak. Listen. Change. Wait for no one and nothing.