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Indigenous, non-English languages struggle to survive in U.S.

Ophelia Grant of Georgia Gullah/Geechee Shouters of McIntosh County, Ga., performs  as part of a delegation of Gullah/Geechee descendants from South Carolina
Ophelia Grant of Georgia Gullah/Geechee Shouters of McIntosh County, Ga., performs as part of a delegation of Gullah/Geechee descendants from South Carolina Andre Chung / MCT

WASHINGTON — Frankie Quimby of the Georgia Sea Island Singers remembers when the Geechee language, formally known as Gullah, was unpopular and known as the language of the uneducated.

"It was a time when black history was not taught in schools," Quimby said. "The teachers said (students) have lost their heritage."

Indigenous and non-English languages such as Gullah — which originated with slaves from West Africa and includes some English — face a host of obstacles to survival in today's United States, including a lack of resources, the fact that most of the speakers are dying off and a stigma that the languages are for uneducated people. But some schools and programs are fighting that stigma and trying to preserve these languages for a new generation.

According to Ethnologue, an encyclopedia of the world's languages, 60 languages have become extinct in the U.S. since 1950 and 94 languages are in danger of becoming extinct.

Gullah, which is spoken by an unknown number of descendants of West African slaves along the Atlantic coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia, carries "a certain stigma...as there often is with language varieties spoken by African-Americans in this country," said Tracey Weldon, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of South Carolina.

Quimby said that what it meant to be Gullah had changed. In 2005 the American Bible Society and the Penn Center at St. Helena Island, S.C., had the Bible translated into Gullah.

Recently, a teacher from a summer school in the Gullah community invited Quimby to come and share some language, games and Gullah culture with the students.

Michael Allen, the coordinator of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a program of the National Park Service, said that summer camps at which performers came to sing and dance in Gullah helped kids learn about their heritage.

"Language is recognized as a central part of understanding the culture," Allen said.

Weldon said she now hears some of her students embracing their Geechee heritage.

"It's changing in the way it's being used," she said.

Preserving language has become important to many cultures that fear their heritage will be lost. For American Indians, some help could be provided by the Native Class Act, a bill introduced in June by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, that would help American Indian reservations and communities strengthen language- and culture-based education and promote teacher training and development.

"Teaching young people through their cultures and traditions helps them to learn well, because culture and traditions are the roots of their lives," Akaka said at a recent hearing on expanding culture-based education.

More than 90 percent of Indian students attend public schools operated by their local school districts, which don't include instruction in American Indian languages, William Mendoza, the acting director of the White House Initiative for Tribal Colleges and Universities at the Department of Education, testified at the hearing.

"There are few venues for collaboration between tribes and states, even in the case of school district-operated public schools located on tribal lands," Mendoza said.

The New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee, N.C., which has 60 students, found that creating an immersion school helps children learn about their culture, identity and, most importantly, the language.

Gilliam Jackson, the Kituwah Academy administrator, said some parents were apprehensive about the small classes and isolation from public North Carolina schools.

"There's always a fear my child is not going to be able to operate in what they call 'the real world,' " Jackson said.

The academy has much smaller classes than most private schools in North Carolina do, with three students to a class in the preschool and only two to a class in the elementary school. Jackson said this allowed children who needed more attention in certain subjects to receive it.

Students also can be exposed to Cherokee culture through the Cherokee Central School System, which operates schools on Cherokee reservations in North Carolina, Jackson said the language could effectively be dead in 25 years if students weren't immersed in conversational language.

Most fluent speakers in the area were in their late 50s, Jackson said.

"The Cherokee Central School System exposes students to (the Cherokee words for) colors, food and animals, but that doesn't produce speakers," Jackson said, adding that learning colors and how to count to 20 in Cherokee wasn't going to preserve the language.

According to the Alaska Native Language Center, a research center that documents and teaches native languages in Alaska, Central Alaskan Yupik is the largest of the state's native languages and is still the first language spoken by native children in 17 Yupik villages. With 68 villages in all, home to about 21,000 people, there are about 10,000 Yupik speakers.

Lawrence Kaplan, the director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said the center assists a lot of native and non-natives in learning the language. The center also publishes dictionaries, grammar, and books that can be used for training and teaching.

Kaplan said that while there were about 2,000 Alaskan speakers of the Inupiaq language, there were many more in Canada and Greenland. He said that American culture used to place a greater importance on assimilation and requiring that all Americans speak English — although that's slowly changing.

"There may be a greater tolerance of bilingual (speakers) in other countries," Kaplan said. In the past, he said, the message from American schools was "We should assimilate and learn English," that that's what it meant to be an American.

"Those ideas are no longer put forth by schools or government entities," Kaplan said.

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