Helping Revitalize Endangered Native Languages

Pictured above: Brian Moran, right, with Martha Birdbear, one of the Hidatsa speakers in North Dakota.

UPDATE, Aug. 20, 2016: From KVPR’s “Valley Edition”: Linguistics professors and students at Fresno State are hard at work on a mammoth task – saving the language of the Chukchansi tribe of Mono Indians. One thing makes their task especially difficult – there are only 12 speakers of the Chukchansi language left. We talked with professors Dr. Brian Agbayani and Dr. Niken Adisasmito-Smith about their work, and the challenges of not only documenting the language for posterity but also keeping alive and in active use. Listen to the interview here.

Original post, Aug. 12, 2016: Linguistics students at Fresno State take classroom teachings into the greater world, bringing lessons to life and working with Native American communities to revitalize indigenous languages. In doing so, they help restore the beautiful, unique language and culture of a people too often marginalized.

Several Fresno State linguistics faculty members and students recently returned from doing fieldwork this summer with The Language Conservancy, a national organization that works to develop teaching materials for indigenous languages. Work done by the faculty and students will help in the documentation and revitalization of the Crow and Hidatsa languages.

Many tribes are in danger of losing their native language as only a few fluent speakers remain. Every 14 days a language is lost forever, according to The Language Conservancy website.

Amanda Rivera, a linguistics graduate student who expects to graduate in December, was one of the students who took part in the fieldwork, from June 8 through July 30.

Chris Golsten with a Crow Speaker
Dr. Chris Golsten, left, with Jeff Rides-the-Bear, a Crow speaker.

“This work was rewarding because I was part of a project working toward revitalizing an endangered language,” Rivera said. “Talking with the speakers and hearing about their culture through their stories and experiences really helped me draw a connection from the language to their culture.”

Linguistics is the study of the human capacity for language.

“Language is the defining characteristic of the human species; without language, there would be no civilization, no culture, no art, none of the achievements and capabilities distinctive to the human species,” said Dr. Brian Agbayani, chair of the Linguistics Department, which is part of the College of Arts and Humanities. “The study of the nature of language is fundamental to the understanding of what it means to be human.”

Since 2009, linguistics faculty members Dr. Chris Golston, Dr. Niken Adisasmito-Smith and Agbayani have worked with native speakers Holly and Jane Wyatt from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians locally to revitalize the language, devise a writing system, start the process of developing a Chukchansi dictionary and grammar, and work with traditional stories and myths. Students have helped complete this work.

“We have translated 27 myths back into Chukchansi,” Golston said. “These are stories that were told to anthropologists last century in English. We’ve restored them to their original language working with native speaker Holly Wyatt.”

“So far, we’ve developed Chukchansi language learning apps for mobile devices, language teaching materials and an English-Chukchansi dictionary,” Agbayani said.

John boyle MHA
Dr. John Boyle and Martha Birdbear, a Hidatsa teacher and co-author of Hidatsa textbooks.

Professor Boyle, who joined the Fresno State Linguistics faculty in 2014, was interviewed on the fieldwork done this summer in a segment by Montana Public Radio. It was broadcast on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

“Our faculty in linguistics are world-renowned scholars who apply their knowledge for the greater good,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “They preserve language and, in doing so, allow us to appreciate and understand the diversity and richness of our Native American languages.”

Agbayani said this is the first time a number of students have accompanied the faculty members for indigenous language fieldwork.

Brian Moran was one of those students. Moran, who also expects to graduate this semester, is majoring in computational linguistics, which he chose “because it seemed the perfect synthesis between my love for language and for computers.” He participated in the fieldwork in North Dakota with The Language Conservancy.

“It felt good to be doing real linguistics,” said Moran, a 26-yearold from Rhode Island. Moran came to the Valley when he was stationed in Lemoore, and stayed to come to Fresno State after he left the Navy. “As a student, you spend so much time in a classroom that sometimes you forget that you’re preparing for an actual field of work.”

It’s one thing, Moran said, to record language from a native speaker in a classroom setting. It’s another to go out in a community to catalog words – how the language sounds, how the sounds are produced, what the words mean and how the sentences are formed.

Working in a community like this goes back to the essence of linguistics – studying language to understand what it means to be human, connecting to the speakers of that language.

“It was rewarding forging relationships with the community members there,” Moran said. “On our last day, a few of the people I had been working with insisted on cooking a huge lunch with all of us interns. It really warmed my heart to be receiving such kindness.”

The opportunity to be part of this project had a huge impact on Rivera:

“The language  they speak is an endangered language. It’s very important for the elders to continue to speak it so it is passed on to the children.

Moran said language grants identity to its community of speakers.

“Anyone who is bi-cultural or has traveled at all knows the instant connection they feel when they find someone who speaks the way they do,” Moran said. “I don’t even mean a language other than English specifically, it could be just a dialect. Being from the East Coast, I know that when I hear that familiar New Englanda’ accent, I immediately turn to see who’s speaking. It just reminds me of home. That’s the connection a language can give you – it’s instant and automatic. It can be strong or it can be subtle.”

~ By Lisa Maria Boyles/Photos courtesy of Amanda Rivera

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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