7/27/2006 4:00:00 AM U of A nabs $142,504 native language grant Contribution from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation enables 20 to attend annual indigenous language conference
Photo by Maho Kawachi provided courtesy of AILDI
American Indian Language Development Institute students (from left) Don Jack of the Mono Tribe, Saul Montoya and Noemi Martinez, both of the University of Texas-El Paso, hold a poster depicting the symbolism of various characters in the film “The Last Speakers.” The students held the discussion during their Alternative Spaces for Revitalization: Indigenous Language and Identity in Film class held throughout June at the University of Arizona-Tucson.
By Rebecca Schubert The Observer
TUCSON -- Each word in every language is precious to its speakers because it represents a feeling, a time and a connection between the one producing the sound and the one comprehending its intended meaning.
Currently, 7,000 languages are spoken throughout the world with 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the U.S. alone. Of these, approximately155 are no longer being learned by children.
To thwart this trend, in 1979 the University of Arizona established the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI).
Each summer since then, speakers and teachers of native languages have been invited to Tucson to study the documentation and use of languages so that not only the words, but the knowledge and cultures entwined with the speech would persist into the future.
"The whole issue of language loss and language endangerment has gotten a lot of press, because it's dramatic," said AILDI cofounder Dr. Ophelia Zepeda, Tohono O'odham. "Oftentimes mainstream audiences aren't aware of how language and cultural practices are connected."
Now in its 27th summer, the 2006 AILDI sessions (held throughout the month of June) welcomed students, teachers and tribal elders from communities across the U.S. and world. In total, the participants represented approximately 26 indigenous languages including Oneida, Coushatta, Tubatulabal, Hualapai, Dine, Hopi and Okanagan.
Keeping with this year's theme "Gathering Talk: Documenting, Describing and Revitalizing Our Languages," the sessions included graduate and undergraduate courses in linguistics, language immersion, materials development, curriculum and instruction, computer applications for language teaching, Native American children's literature and indigenous language and identity in film.
Also offered at this year's institute was a unique grant-writing seminar made possible by a special contribution presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation in a partnership for Documenting Endangered Languages. Through this award of $142,504, a new aspect was added to AILDI.
"Normally Native educators, primarily at the elementary, high school and college levels attend the institute," Zepeda explained. "This year, representatives from tribal governments who are in a position to be able to carry out proposal development and its implementation were able to attend."
This grant funded attendance for 20 individuals. Students chosen to attend the conference submitted language proposals to AILDI staff prior to the institute with a total of 11 projects chosen.
AILDI program coordinator Regina Siquieros, also Tohono O'odham, explained the attendees who were funded through the AILDI grant were also chosen based upon how endangered their language is. After attending the conference, these representatives came to realize the importance of documenting their language, as well as ways to do so.
"The people that come to AILDI know that their language is endangered and have a deep concern for that. They come to hear, share and learn from others. One speaker explained that there were only a few speakers left from his tribe. When people hear this, it really hits home," Siquieros said. "They feel a sense of urgency and say, 'I really need to get back and have tribal members come here.' "
During the linguistics course, students learn to break their language into small pieces so that each feeling and meaning is interpreted and understood fully.
"The students said that now that they have that skill, it would be easier to explain when people ask things about the language," Siquieros remembered.
Through the computer applications course, students learned the varieties of software available to support indigenous language revitalization. Zepeda detailed the value of computer programs with audio functions in comparison to dictionaries.
"If it's in print, you don't know what it sounds like," she said.
One grant-funded group, the Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin attended AILDI specifically to learn about this element.
"The Ho-Chunk nation has had extensive documentation, but now they want to set up a system of archiving using technology…and then use this within their community," Zepeda said.
Both Zepeda and Siquieros expounded upon one of the most important discussions -- held on numerous occasions -- throughout AILDI, which focused on some tribal members' reluctance to document language and culture.
"We understand the apprehension out there -- the whole issues of protocol, permission…putting things on the web is very sensitive for many tribal members," Zepeda said.
She explained that AILDI students and faculty surmised that the overall benefits of documentation truly outweigh the risks.
"When you have Hopi children who are no longer learning the language in their homes, it's important to have a way they can learn," she said.
Siquieros said that so many young AILDI students are deeply afraid that their traditional language will be lost.
"They said that so many tribal elders have been so used to not going in that direction. But maybe, if they would just come forward and play a role in documenting the language and culture…what these students are looking for is for elders to help them," Siquieros said.
She then presented the opinion of an elder also participating in AILDI, who was incredible concerned that young people were no longer learning the traditional speech and ways.
"She said, 'I've had this concern and it makes me so happy so be here and hear that young people want to learn,' " Siquieros recalled.
"There are a lot of realizations that happen here. We're just on a real high and it gives us as native people such hope to hear that they want to be part of the preservation of our language," Siquieros said.
During the summer 2007 AILDI, coordinators will collaborate with the U of A Poetry Center to explore Native American literature and creative writing.
To learn more about AILDI or how to be part of the documentation process, call the American Indian Language Development Institute at 520-621-1068; send an email to email@example.com; or visit www.u.arizona.edu/~aildiz.