What Is An Endangered Language?
Around the world, many languages are becoming less common as other commonly used languages replace them. In many cases, the progeny of certain language speakers never learns their native family language. This trend is resulting in endangered languages, languages that will likely become extinct in the future. This article takes a look at the endangered languages of the US.
The Decline Of Native American Languages
In the US, native languages spoken by Indigenous peoples have been declining since European colonization began. Before colonialism, approximately 300 languages were used throughout the country. Today, there are around 167 languages, and estimates suggest that only 20 of these Indigenous languages will remain by 2050.
What happened to the original 300 languages? European settlers oppressed the Indigenous population, pushing them off their land, and eventually giving them tracts of land nowhere near their traditional homes. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the government initiated assimilation programs to eradicate Indigenous cultures, including their languages. As part of these programs, the government ran boarding schools for Indigenous children, which removed them from their families for significant periods of time. The curriculum was designed to force the students to learn English. Not only were they punished for using their languages, but their traditional names were also replaced with European-American names. The goal was to create a homogeneous culture within the US.
The federal government did not change these policies until 1972 when Congress passed the Indian Education Act. This act made it legal to teach Indigenous children in their own languages and gave tribes the authority to control schools. This was reinforced in the 1990s when the US government passed the Native American Languages Act, which recognized the importance of preserving Indigenous languages. In 2006, Congress approved funding for tribes that want to establish language programs in local schools.
The Importance Of Preserving Language
Put simply, language is culture. Preserving a language allows its users to maintain a cultural identity, which allows the culture to survive. Researchers suggest that language preservation leads to empowerment within a community. It improves community relationships, enhances self-esteem, and increases cultural wellbeing. The United Nations (UN) also recognizes the importance of preserving native languages. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets forth the right of indigenous people to develop, use, and share their native languages.
How To Protect And Promote Endangered Languages
The first step toward promoting endangered languages is to make them available to interested learners. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by offering language classes to school children. Offering language courses and working to record the language, its vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar and making it available to a wide audience are excellent approaches to preventing language extinction. Any technique that may lead to increased use and exposure, particularly for children, is likely to preserve the language. The biggest challenge in protecting language use is keeping younger generations interested in their language heritage. This interest can be difficult to establish when youth are expected to use English in nearly every facet of their lives. Many tribes have made progress, however. The Navajo and Miami tribes, in particular, have established language immersion programs that have preserved and renewed use within their communities.