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The race to save Indigenous languages


Language researchers just released the latest version of the Ethnologue, which aims to catalogue the state of all of the world's languages, all 7,164 of them. Many of these languages are endangered. Some have so few native speakers that you can count them on one hand. In the U.S., for instance, 193 of the 197 living languages are endangered. And one of those languages is Caddo, the native language of the Caddo Nation, a tribe native to the area where Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas meet. There are just two fluent Caddo speakers left, and they're both now in their 90s. But a younger generation is working to reclaim their native tongue. Alaina Tahlate is Caddo, and she's the language preservationist for the Caddo Nation. Alaina, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALAINA TAHLATE: (Speaking Caddo).

Thank you, Scott. My name is Alaina Tahlate. I live in Oklahoma City, and I'm learning Caddo language from our elders.

DETROW: Tell me how you first became interested in this work of preserving this language.

TAHLATE: I first became interested when I was a kid. My heroes are my great-grandparents, who were Caddo speakers. From there, my interest grew. I went and studied Native American language revitalization at the University of Oklahoma. And today I'm employed by my tribe, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, to hopefully bring our language back.

DETROW: I mean, I guess it's maybe a straightforward answer of there's just a handful of people left who can speak it, but why did that jump out to you as - this is what I need to focus my time on; this is what I need to focus my energy on, preserving this language?

TAHLATE: Our language encodes so much information about our history, our spirituality, who we are, our cultural values. So when we're able to preserve our language, we're able to preserve other aspects of our culture as well.

DETROW: Can you help me understand how you go about doing this? How do you and other preservationists try to save and then spread a language that has been dwindling in terms of the number of people who are still speaking and understanding it?

TAHLATE: There's a couple of different approaches. I think, here at the Caddo Nation, we try and go the preservation and revitalization route. So preservation entails documenting and archiving the history, stories, language, songs and culture, typically from our knowledge keepers, most of which are quite elderly now. The other approach is revitalization, which protects the language's future by creating new speakers. And we're trying to do this in a couple of different ways here at the Caddo Nation. But the main way is through community-based language classes, which I teach to our elders, to our kids and on Zoom.

DETROW: How's that going?

TAHLATE: It's going excellent. It's going so much better than I initially expected. I was a little bit worried that our community wouldn't catch on. But there's so much passion. There's so much drive. And I have to give it to our community - we're working together, and we're making such amazing progress.

DETROW: What are some of the ways that you encourage people, whether it's one-on-one or whether it's teaching classes? - because, you know, learning a language can be really hard. It can be really discouraging sometimes.

TAHLATE: I try to encourage people by reminding them that we are all learning here together and we really can't do this without each other - just letting people know that any anxieties that they might feel are natural. We wouldn't be hard on a little baby who's learning their first language, so why would we be hard on ourselves for learning our language? It's something that we should all be proud of. We know that our ancestors are cheering us on.

DETROW: I hadn't heard language learning framed that way before. That's a really great way to think about it. You introduced yourself in Caddo and we'd love to hear more of it spoken. I understand you brought a short story with you to share with us.

TAHLATE: Sure. I think I'll tell a short kids story about how the turtle got its squares.

(Speaking Caddo).

So a long time ago, there was no water. There was a drought. And all of the animals had a council concerning - where did all of the water go?

(Speaking Caddo).

So they made a plan - each animal would go in different directions to search for water. They agreed that if anyone found some water, they would holler and tell the others where it was.

(Speaking Caddo).

The turtle went along, and as he went along, he got stuck on the log and couldn't get down. He started yelling, help, help.

(Speaking Caddo).

The other animals heard him yelling, believing that he had found water. They stampeded and trampled him, and his shell was covered in all of their footprints. And that's the story of how the turtle got its squares.

DETROW: What's your favorite part of learning and speaking Caddo? Is it the language itself? Is it the history it ties it to? Is it discovering stories like this?

TAHLATE: I think my favorite part about our language is that I honestly think it's the most beautiful language in the world. I'm a little biased, though (laughter). And...

DETROW: (Laughter).

TAHLATE: But the other part that I love about learning our language, like you said, is the deep meanings behind it and the insights that it can give us about our worldview and how we think about, talk about and relate with each other and our land and how it all just ties everything together, I suppose.

DETROW: That's Alaina Tahlate, language preservationist for the Caddo Nation. Thank you so much.

TAHLATE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.