Of the 537 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 139 of them still have speakers of their native language, and more than 90% of those languages are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050. Languages carry tribal knowledge, culture, humor, conversation styles, spirituality, and traditions. When language speakers decrease dramatically and parts of the language is lost, it must be “refashioned” into the new language using different words, sounds, and grammatical structures—if the transfer is even possible at all.
“Linguists’ work in communities when language shift is occurring shows that for the most part such refashioning, even when social identity is maintained, involves abrupt loss of tradition,” University of Texas professor of linguistics Anthony Woodbury writes. “More often, the cultural forms of the colonial power take over, transmitted often by television.”
In response to the threat of language loss, some Indigenous tribes are turning towards accessible technology to save and revitalize their languages.
Language revitalization is grounded in education and accessibility; if language resources aren’t available and there are no designated ways to practice that language, how will it continue to be used?
Some tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, have held language courses for several years, but many tribes face barriers to developing language programs of their own. There may not be any remaining elders who speak the language well enough to teach it—the Cherokee and Navajo Nations are the two largest Native American tribes who have retained the most speakers of their languages.
Then even if there is an elder available to teach, they may lack resources to set up structured, systemic language classes. Then, there is the added challenge of accessibility—if the classes take place at a high school on the reservation, how will tribe members living off the reservation access the information?
That’s where technological solutions can help.
Read more: YES! Magazine