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Keeping Indigenous Languages Alive

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I hope you've gotten the message already that although I recognize the benefits for anyone living in this country to learn English, I don't believe English should be valued over anyone's native language or the language of one's heritage.

Unfortunately, this country has a history of official discrimination against American Indian languages that contributed greatly to their decline. One of the most damaging policies in this regard was that the federal government forced many Native Americans to attend boarding schools, starting in the 1870s, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Most off-reservation boarding schools were closed in the 1930s, but many Native Americans still attended such schools on reservations after that.

At the Heard Museum in Phoenix a few years ago, I heard sad, recorded testimonies from Native Americans about how they were punished if they spoke their mother tongues at boarding school. Also, when I visited a Navajo reservation in Arizona a couple of years ago for Education Week, I met elderly people who explained that the boarding-school era had a lasting effect in conditioning people not to use their native languages. After boarding school, many spoke mostly English in their own households, and thus didn't pass the language on to their children.

Still some Native American communities are persisting in fighting the dominance of English through programs that engage children in learning indigenous languages. One organization supporting such initiatives is the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. You can read recent stories about efforts to revitalize indigenous languages that have been selected by the Web team of edweek.org, and are posted here.

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A federal court denied the right of heritage language students to study their heritage languages in a public school with public funds. Heritage language speakers are speakers of another language but test proficent in English. The native language is only used to learn English. I'm glad that Native Language speakers can learn their languages on a reservation but it would be great if more had the opportunity to learn.

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