The Seattle Times recently ran an article entitled, "Saving Native Languages." According to the article, there is a diminishing number of elders whose native tongue is their first language and tribes are racing to preserve their languages by teaching it to the youth in their communities.
In order to preserve this crucial aspect of their heritage, elders have compiled dictionaries for languages that were entirely oral; recording elders; transcribing tapes; and especially, teaching the next generation of speakers. They have even set up classrooms and prepared teachers to pass on the gift of the native language. At Tulalip Elementary, for example, classrooms are set up to teach children Lushootseed, one of Washington state's native languages. Approximately 80 percent of the students are of Native American decent, but nonnative children are just as interested in learning the new language. Incredibly, the article reports that by fourth grade, many of the children can speak in sentences, writing and following commands, all in Lushootseed. I had to learn English when my family immigrated from Poland and it's amazing how quickly I picked up the language as a seven year old child. It was easy and fun for me to learn a new language. Just as it is easy for the children attending Tulalip Elementary. The article reports that the students take to the language with ease and greatly enjoy the cultural experience of learning a new tongue, especially in the earliest grades.
According to the article, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, more than 300 languages were spoken in North America. Today an estimated 175 or so indigenous languages are spoken in the United States but about 90 percent are moribund, with very few children speaking them as their first language. Today, there are about 16 native languages still spoken in Washington. They are languages as musical as their names: Makah; Okanagan, Klallam, Quileute, Lushootseed.
It is incredibly inspiring to hear that not only have Tribal elders taken a proactive role in preserving Native American languages, but that the youth have embraced learning the language that will give them one of the most intimate connections to their cultural heritage possible -- and that is one of the greatest gifts of all.