Even though there are clear methods to revive an endangered language, they can’t always readily be applied. Unfortunately, the tribes with the most severely endangered languages are often the ones least able to implement rescue efforts.
Endangered Native American languages can be roughly broken down into two categories. One is made up of large, relatively wealthy tribes like the 250,000-member Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which has perhaps 9,000 fluent speakers and an immersion school with a budget of $2.5 million. The other category consists of small communities, like my own Yuchi tribe. These often have only a handful of elderly speakers and don’t have enough resources to even conduct the planning and research required to launch a program like the Cherokees’. It’s not just a matter of scale: the smaller, critically endangered languages are, in significant ways, a separate case, and they need separate treatment.
Beyond the real limits on capacity, there are reasons that very small language communities may be ill-advised to attempt certain types of programs that are often touted as models for language revitalization. For these tribes, every language planning decision is fateful. Every move could turn out to be the last chance to work directly with treasured elders. When the prospect of losing your language is no longer a theoretical problem but a mortal threat sharpened by every dip in elders’ health and each passing funeral, the effort to keep language alive proceeds with much greater intensity. Indeed, smaller language communities with aging speakers find themselves working under the tyranny of time. Linguist Michael Krauss is noted for rightly asserting that the age of speakers is the most critical factor for any language. But when the absolute numbers of remaining speakers becomes tiny, that, too, is a critical factor. Indeed, it is the controlling factor for choosing revitalization strategies.
The issues that we have been dealing with in my own Yuchi community illustrate the common struggle that smaller language revitalization programs face. My grandmother’s generation did not speak English—virtually everyone spoke only Yuchi. Today, after two generations of colonial assault on our languages through boarding schools and other corrosive influences, we have only five fully fluent speakers to help us pass the gift forward. The importance of our work is heightened by the fact that Yuchi is considered a language isolate, a unique language without any known near relatives.
Our challenge has been to adapt the standard models of language revitalization to meet our special needs. The ideal model is to develop classrooms where young community members are immersed in the language all day every day. If done right, this will produce parenting-age speakers who can then raise their kids as native speakers. But the scale of this solution is typically beyond the capacity of small language groups, so an alternative master-apprentice model was developed among the 50 remaining languages still spoken in California, all of which have very few speakers. This type of program completely reverses the focus of the learning process. Rather than trying to bring an entire group into fluency, it focuses on only one learner per speaker, creating pairs of masters and apprentices. Although master-apprentice systems are small scale, they involve total immersion in the language. The limitation of this approach is that it is a stopgap measure. Because it typically relies on adult learners it will only extend the time to get language to the preferred targets: the children. Until that objective is achieved, communities will find themselves on a treadmill of last-ditch efforts to teach the language to new adults, who will in turn still have to teach the language to new speakers.
So what kinds of adaptations have we made in the Yuchi community? We received some funding from the Lannan Foundation to start a master-apprentice program. But to make the most of our available dollars and, above all, to maximize our elder speakers’ time, we increased the number of apprentices, creating small clusters of learners for each master. The payoff here is that the cluster members can both reinforce each other’s learning and also provide a cushion against any unforeseen attrition. Our hope is that the learning process will not be overly diluted by having so many apprentices.
At the other end of the scale we have recently tried to tweak the immersion classroom model. We have a two-hour immersion class for toddlers during the day, which helps give them an introduction to the language. This is followed by after-school immersion sessions for older students. We do not have the resources to create an immersion kindergarten and follow through with additional grades in subsequent years, so this arrangement is a realistic alternative. If we can develop fluency in the preschoolers, our bet is that an after-school program will provide enough support to maintain and enhance their speaking skills in the coming years.
But making even this small-scale program work requires further tweaking of the program design options. It is very difficult to ask octogenarians to sit down on a regular basis with rowdy two-year-olds, however charming they may be and however fast they may be at picking up the language. We are forced to call upon a small group of adults who can learn directly from the elders and can then, in turn, act as the hands-on teachers for the small children in immersion classes. So our current schedule involves two hours of adult immersion/cluster learning in the morning, with these same adult-learners then teaching the two-hour toddler class in the afternoon. We depend on this in-between generation to fill the gap between the elders and the youngest community members.
This seemingly scattered set of approaches represents an overall program that knits together the learning possibilities of different age groups into a common future for our language. Indeed, the members of the toddler class today are the children of students who attended community classes 10 to 15 years ago. Former casual learners are now proud parents who are making immersion classes a priority in their children’s lives. The next strategy on our wish list is to provide full scholarships to four male and four female high school seniors to work on their own language full-time as scholars, with all the prestige and advantages such a program would imply. This would reward our students for studying their own language and help stop the draining away of our best students to outside occupations.
The Economics of Revitalizing Small Languages
Of course, the first challenge for any language program is finding the funds to make the program go. Here, too, small language groups face special obstacles. These groups not only have few speakers but also a limited number of supporters, both within and outside the community. Our Yuchi language work has received significant funding from the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, where all of our present-day fluent speakers are enrolled. One of our enduring challenges has been helping members of the National Council to understand the need for significant and long-term financial support, and to appreciate the size and the complexity of the language challenge we are trying to tackle.
The funding challenge is best exemplified by the oft-repeated claim that you do not need funds to save your language. While the notion can be useful to spur communities to take immediate action on the issue, it is true only for those language communities that are fortunate enough to have fluent speakers of parenting age. They can pursue the natural process of language transmission by speaking to their children from birth. For three-quarters of languages, though, this approach is simply not an option, since all the remaining speakers belong to the grand- parent and great-grandparent generations. Unfortunately, once the natural progression of the language has been broken, there is no easy way to get it back. For small language groups there are no simple or cheap solutions. Real money is required for effective programs.
But that money is not always available from foundations, which tend to be focused on tangible outcomes and clear completion dates. We have struggled over the last decade to steer limited funding resources to keeping the Yuchi language alive, but most of the larger grants have been available only for projects that involve some form of documentation of the language. While documentation work can be useful, the most urgent need is to channel funding to direct language learning to grow new fluent speakers while we still have the opportunity to do so.
One of the most helpful sources of funding has been the supplemental support we received from Running Strong for American Indian Youth and from church or other smaller funding sources. These types of sources—in contrast to academic or government sources—have given us the flexibility to address the community’s unique learning needs. Among other things they have given us the freedom to hire staff and acquire needed recording and distribution supplies. The funds also have been important for ensuring the availability of elders, whose time is always under great demand, as well as adult community members, who are essential to a functioning program. It is unrealistic to expect parents who have already worked a 40- to 60-hour week to volunteer for the language program at the level needed to create fluency.
Saving the languages of smaller tribes requires innovation, adaptation, and much hard work, and for programs to be successful, many serious obstacles will have to be overcome. The good news is that there are program designs that can be made to work for small language communities—but clarity and precision are vital since funds are so short and there is so little time left.
Richard A. Grounds is the director of the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project and co-chair of Cultural Survival’s Program Council. He received his doctorate in history of religions from Princeton Theological Seminary and is a research professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa.