Baby Steps—Walk Before You Run


ACTA - Posted on 06 April 2008

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A meeting hosted by the Konkow Wailaki Maidu Indian Cultural Preservation Association on March 9, 2008.

Editor's Note:  The Konkow Wailaki Maidu Indian Cultural Preservation Association is a current grantee in ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program.  Their in-progress project involves utilizing recordings of the of Koyongk'awi language acquired from UC Berkeley's archives and working with Native languages linguist Sheri Tatsch, Ph.D., to develop a standardized writing system, outline teaching materials, and train members of the community in the writing system and some of the specifics of Koyongk'awi and basic linguistic principles.  In the following article, Kate Hedges of the Konkow Wailaki Maidu Indian Cultural Preservation Association discusses the process of language revitalization as experienced by her community and the progression of their current project.

The process of language revitalization is similar to the process of a baby learning to walk.  An infant must learn to turn over and sit up before standing.  The toddler pulls up again and again until one foot follows the other and then they are walking.  There are failed attempts at first steps – and then a few steps – and then the perception of accomplishment makes them want to try to run, which brings more tumbles.  Sooner or later, the motor skills necessary to walk and run and jump and dance are developed.

If your language community is healthy there are generations of fluent speakers – language learning is as it should be, with an extended family of siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents, everyone holding the toddler's hand and encouraging progress.  Unfortunately, many California indigenous language communities are not healthy.  The natural transmission of language to the infant at home has been lost.  The extended family support system for indigenous language learning simply does not exist for far too many Native Californians.

The Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival set out to change this situation some 15 years ago or so.  The founding members were Native Californians, some fluent speakers, some not, but all cognizant of the need to preserve and encourage revitalization of California's diverse language landscape before it is gone.  Leanne Hinton, professor emerita, UC Berkeley, Linguistics Department, continues to bring her enthusiasm and considerable expertise to the ongoing process.

Revitalization is easier with fluent speakers.  The Advocates' Master-Apprentice Program has had substantial success with several communities by pairing master speakers with apprentices interested in learning the language.  By utilizing immersion techniques – speaking only in the indigenous language, no English – the teams approximate the natural language acquisition process.  The program's success is best illustrated by one of the first apprentices who is now raising her children with Karuk as their first language.  The generational support system has been put back in place and the health of the language is ensured.

Some language communities have no fluent speakers to pair apprentices with.  The elders either don't admit to knowing their language or think they have forgotten the language.  For many their language was forbidden when they were children, when they were sent to the Indian Schools.  Some elders don't want to be asked to teach classes for many reasons, from health issues to uncertainty of how to teach.

The Advocates' Breath of Life – Silent No More workshop was inspired by L Frank Manriquez to provide revitalization assistance to those communities with no or few fluent speakers.  The program grew from the desire of these language communities to learn their indigenous language, to speak their ancestors' words, and to see the world as their people did.  This sounds poetic but the truth is – it is hard work!

The weeklong workshop pairs participants with a mentor, usually a graduate linguistics student, and gives them a crash course in language revitalization.  Everything is introduced from sentence structure – subject, verb, object – to grammar, to language learning techniques, such as TPR, or Total Physical Response.  Participants are then introduced to the archives housed at UC Berkeley and how to research them.  These archives – Bancroft Library, Hearst Museum, Berkeley Language Center, and the Survey Room – are very extensive and way beyond the scope of this article.

I serve as the secretary of the Konkow Wailaki Maidu Indian Cultural Preservation Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu in Oroville, CA.  We have been actively working to revitalize our language, Koyongk'awi, for over five years.  The passive efforts of tribal members were in place all along, secreting away the hand written notebooks and recordings in their closets, waiting for someone to work with them.  The revitalization baby can now roll over and sit up but cannot yet pull up to stand.

By far the most precious gem in our treasure trove were the VHS tapes of Mary Jones, one of our last fluent speakers, organized into 22 conversational lessons, thanks to Brian Bibby and the Maidu Heritage Commission.  This close-up video footage of Mary speaking in our language is an irreplaceable resource.  We digitized the material into DVD format for distribution.  The child can now pull up to a stand.

In June 2004, Patsy Seek, Tribal Chairwoman, and I attended our first Breath of Life workshop.  Sheri Tatsch was assigned as one of our mentors – her doctoral work at the time was on the Nisenan, our sister language to the south.  As I remember now, I wanted to absorb as much information as I possibility could in the limited timeframe.  Resources were identified in all of the archives – field notes, audio recordings, and Russell Ultan's doctoral documentation – but access restrictions applied at the time on some materials.  Almost putting one foot in front of the other, a stumble.

Maybe that's OK, maybe it should take time.  The accumulated materials used several different writing systems – trained linguist, classroom teacher, or fluent speaker writing their unwritten language in English, their second language – whenever, whoever was writing it down, they spelled it as they thought it should be spelled.  So, how do you say what someone else spelled a long time ago?

The 2006 Breath of Life workshop rekindled our working relationship with soon to be Professor Tatsch.  The access restrictions on the recordings from Berkeley Language Center had been removed and copies were ordered immediately.  The LongNow Foundation made available digitized recording from Ultan's work – 3 stories and the translation transcripts from their Folk Art collection – these are the story translations I am using in our current project supported by the Alliance.  The child can pull up and circle the coffee table repeatedly – wanting to run – but still holding on to the table.

With Sheri's guidance, we realized our next logical step was to standardize a writing system.  Our current grant from the Alliance is, in part, to develop a community, consensus based orthography for the Konkow Maidu language, Koyongk'awi.  An overall design parameter of this system is to use a standard keyboard to enable written and electronic communication in our language to facilitate revitalization and language acquisition.  This is the primary flaw in using the schwa, the upside-down e.  (For those of you unfamiliar with what a schwa is, it has been used by linguists to represent the sound of the e in places.)

Two meetings have been held thus far with the attendees representing a cross section of the language community in the Oroville area.  Time spent figuring out why something doesn't work is not time lost – it is a beginning phase in consensus building.  In March, a preliminary consensus was reached, our starting point.  Our consonants sound as they do in English, except one which we will represent with ts; our b and d are always  imploded (air is drawn in not pushed out); an apostrophe will indicate a glottal stop; and emphasis is always on the first syllable.  All of the different vowel sounds is where it gets a little tricky, but it's a good start.

Our revitalization baby is developing the muscle mass and motor skills needed to let go and successfully walk on its own.  Several of the project participants plan to attend this year's AICLS' Language is Life Conference.  This experience will introduce them to some of the teaching materials and techniques available for language revitalization and allow them to share experiences and ideas with others who are working to revitalize their own languages.  As each of us gains more understanding of the process of language learning we add to the skill set of our revitalization baby – soon we will be running and jumping and some day may be able to dance.

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