Having Their Say

With digital recorders and DVDs, young people are saving endangered languages.

By Kari Lydersen Jun 16, 2009

UNESCO lists almost 2,500 languages worldwide as “endangered,” meaning they are at risk of falling out of use and even disappearing as fluent native speakers die and younger generations fail to take up the language. A bulk of endangered languages are the tongues of indigenous groups who have been colonized or encroached upon by a dominant culture and forced or coerced to give up their native language. In the past, students were beaten for speaking their language in strict boarding schools in the United States and Australia. More recently in parts of the U.S. and countless other regions worldwide, people feel cultural and economic pressure to switch to the dominant language, seeing it as a means of opportunity and feeling a sense of shame in their indigenous identity.

But recent years have also seen a resurgence in the interest to preserve indigenous languages among academics, nongovernmental organizations and indigenous communities. In many cases, young people, who did not grow up speaking their native language, are now studying and embracing it as a way to understand and celebrate their heritage and connect with their elders.

Benjamin Young is a perfect example.

Young heard some of his community’s native Haida language while growing up in a small town on Alaska’s panhandle. But the program to teach the Alaska Native language at his elementary school was discontinued when funding was cut. Although Young’s grandfather and other elders in the village were fluent speakers—it was his grandfather’s first language—they would usually switch to English whenever a youth was listening. When Young, now 22, began to really learn about his family’s native language while at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, it was like new worlds were opened to him.

“They were talking about endangered languages, and Haida was one of them,” he said. “I didn’t realize it. You don’t think about that when you’re a teenager.”

Young studied with linguistics professor Kathy Sikorski, who had developed a program to help students learn and preserve their native languages. She helped Young develop an independent study course that he pursued in his hometown in 2006. He began to memorize key phrases. He recorded his grandfather with a digital recorder and DVD camera and played the tapes over and over. Now, Young speaks in Haida all the time, whether people understand him or not. It is partly an effort to normalize the language and to counter the painful reality his elders experienced when they learned to silence themselves around non-Native speakers.

Young is studying education, and his goal is to be a Haida teacher and specialist. His grandfather, who turns 99 this year, is proud of Young and now speaks the language more himself. Young marvels at the words that don’t have translations in English, like a word meaning “descending through forest to the sea.”  

Another of Sikorski’s students, Rochelle Adams, did a similar project with her grandfather, who speaks Gwich’in, the language of their Alaska Native community. She immersed herself in her traditional language, undertaking a project recording and translating stories told by the elders. When she finishes her degree, she will move back to the town where she hopes to run Gwich’in culture and language workshops.

“I’m very proud of who I am, but I’ve learned so much from learning the language,” said Adams, 29. She appreciates that “we don’t have a word for goodbye, we have a word for see you later” and the word for “green” is the word for goose grass, which grows at the edge of the water.

Sikorski herself grew up hearing her family speak Gwich’in until “the schoolteachers came around and said, ‘Don’t speak Gwich’in to your children, only speak English, so when they grow up they’ll be acculturated, they will be able to get jobs and not live off the land.’”

She didn’t learn the language as a child, but set out to study it about 15 years ago, in her mid-30s. At that time, fluent speakers were full of contempt for their own language. Sikorski remembers a relative even faking Spanish ethnicity on her birth certificate because she was embarrassed by her indigenous roots. But now she sees that attitude changing.

“In my generation, when I was learning, the things people said were so bad. It would have been easier for me to say the heck with it, why not just speak English,” she said. Now the fluent speakers encourage more people to learn traditional languages.


Emiliana Cruz’s small hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico, has many older fluent speakers who are ambivalent about the indigenous Chatino language that Cruz grew up speaking. Many see the traditional tonal language as a relic of the past that will hold a youth back in schools or careers. But Cruz, now a graduate student at the University of Texas Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America, is working to document and preserve the many varied dialects of Chatino. By studying the languages, she hopes to better understand how Spanish colonization and other forces have shaped the communities.

She tries to help Chatino speakers appreciate the value of their tonal language, pointing out that many of the world’s major languages are tonal. “It’s often said, ‘Why do you want this language when you can’t write it, you can’t use it in an educational setting, you can’t get a job with it?’” she said. “In fact, it gets you seen as a lower-class person in that society.”

But much of the younger generation does want to learn the language.

“For them, being indigenous is not [just] hair or skin color. It’s everything,” she said. “They feel like they have to speak the language to be able to call themselves indigenous. It’s a pride thing.”

Technology has provided a major boost for learning and preserving Native languages. The Living Tongues Institute, which works with communities worldwide to document and preserve their languages, recruits young “language activists” to use digital technology to record their elders and learn languages themselves.

Rosetta Stone, the company which uses software to teach language purely through images that mimic the natural learning process, has an endangered languages project. They create software in conjunction with and specifically for remote, mainly indigenous communities, including the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake near Montreal, an Iñupiat community in Alaska, and the Chitimacha Tribe in Louisiana whose language had been dormant for more than 75 years.

An initiative at the University of Michigan uses Twitter, Facebook and other social networking applications to foster an online community of speakers of Anishinaabemowin, an endangered language of the Native American Ojibwe people of Michigan and Wisconsin. (The online groups can be found at umich.edu/~ojibwe/aboutus.)  The program also hosts groups on campus where people can learn and speak the language, fostering what is known as a “nest” model, where a language is protected and nurtured within a given space.

Meanwhile, the company Nuance Communications employs text messaging and cell phones to get youth interested in their native languages, even ones that aren’t endangered. It provides applications to let people text in languages including Hindi, Yoruba, Igbo, Zulu and Amharic.


Growing up, Reeverson Descheny was a member of the Navajo Culture Club at Rock Point Community School on the Navajo Nation, where he graduated from high school in 2001. But when he returned to the community in 2008, after getting an education degree at Arizona State University, the club had been discontinued. He noticed that students were ashamed to speak Navajo or wear traditional moccasins and jewelry.

Last fall, Descheny restarted the Navajo club with daily meetings where students speak and sing in Navajo and do traditional drumming and dancing. The club now has 25 members. Descheny’s aunt, Matilda Descheny, returned to the school three years ago as a Navajo language culture specialist. She noted that with the No Child Left Behind Act and Arizona’s infamous English Only laws, running a strong Navajo language program is challenging. Nonetheless, the school has a Navajo-only immersion program for kindergarten and first grade and a bilingual program for higher grades. While the classes build skills in the language, she said her nephew’s club has helped make students proud to be Navajo. “They just needed someone to guide them,” she said. “He came along and said, ‘Look, this is who you guys are.’”

Club member Lyle Woody noted that in the club, they speak in Navajo about the meanings of traditional drums, gourds and other instruments, learning ideas that would be hard to convey in English. Speaking Navajo also helps him connect with an older generation. “When elderly people who I don’t even know come up and in Navajo say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ that feels good,” he said. “There’s no words to explain how it makes you feel.”  

Kari Lydersen is a freelance writer in Chicago.