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Stabilizing Indigenous Languages: An Interview With NAU Professor Jon Reyhner


This weekend, Northern Arizona University will host an international conference on stabilizing indigenous languages. Language experts estimate that hundreds - if not thousands - of native languages have been lost worldwide over the last century, mainly due to the influence of outside cultures and ideologies. Jon Reyhner teaches bi-lingual multicultural education at NAU. He spoke with Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris about what it means to stabilize these languages.

JR: Basically, Native American languages were being lost. Fewer and fewer people were speaking them, some were not being spoken anymore. And so to stabilize would be to stop that erosion of loss of language.

GF: And how does that happen? How do you do that?

JR: What I've found looking around - and I've been involved in this for the last 20 years - immersion schools, where students who don't speak the language and whose parents want them to learn it, go to that school and are taught for the first few years mostly in whatever language. At Puente de Hozho, for the Native Americans it's the Navajo language. What's interesting is in Flagstaff and other places they do better than native students who stay in an all-English program, even on English language tests.

GF: So, the upcoming conference is specific to Native American languages?

JR: Well, we have somebody coming from Bangladesh, we have a couple of Maoris coming from New Zealand. So it's mostly Native American but we have a little wider spread.

GF: And what factors lead to destabilization and are they similar across the globe?

JR: Colonialism. The take over of lands by European colonists - they usually set up schools if they didn't do some genocide. And these students that were indigenous were required to speak whatever the national language; in America it was English, mostly. But in South America it was Spanish. And they were often punished for speaking their native languages and often the parents, when  they had children that went to these schools, didn't teach their kids the native language because they didn't want their kids to be punished in school.

GF: How does that loss of native language influence culture?

JR: It tends to disintegrate culture. There's a recent study in British Columbia where the villages that have hung on to their language have six-time less suicide rate than the villages that have lost their languages more. There's a cultural disintegration. The missionaries came in and said these native languages were the language the Devil spoke, and that they were so simplistic that you couldn't say anything sophisticated in them. Modern linguists have found that this is not true; that these native languages, just like English, you have to produce new vocabulary for new things. But they are not simple languages, they're very complex. I've tried to learn Navajo and have been very unsuccessful.

GF: Is there any sort of rough estimate you could provide, Dr. Reyhner, that might demonstrate how many indigenous languages have been lost over time in the U.S.?

JR: In the world, there's 6 or 7,000 now. In the United States one of the experts that was brought in from Alaska - and this was 20 years ago - talked about only 175 of the native languages in the U.S. or an originally estimated 210 are still spoken, so they've lost at least 35 since then. So a number of languages...the only speakers are in their 80's. So part of this conference is to see what's working. An 80 year old can't go into an immersion classroom often and teach kindergarten kids. But you can link them up with a young man or a young woman on a one-to-one or one-to two basis, and then the young man or woman learns the language and then they pass it on. They're young enough to work, hopefully, for years in an immersion school or some other setting to pass on the language to future generations.

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.