Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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Note: This article was first published in the September/October 2007 issue (Vol. 30, No. 1) of the National Association for Bilingual Education's magazine NABE NEWS on pp. 12-15. Reproduced here by permission. Permission to reprint is hereby given with proper credit to the author and NABE NEWS as the source of original publication.

Linguicism in America

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

Racism in America is a much-discussed issue, but linguicism is a much less understood problem. Linguicism refers to discrimination based on the language one speaks. National groups, particularly U.S. English and English First, are currently promoting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to make English the "Official Language of the United States and to legally limit the use of other languages.

In November 2006 Arizona voters passed Proposition 103 making English Arizona's official language--South Dakota passed theirs in 1995. Arizona has joined 28 other states that have some kind of Official English laws. Louisiana's 1811 law is the oldest of these and Arizona's is one of the most recent. The comparative recency in U.S. history of this concern over the importance of English is indicated by the fact that 23 of the states with Official English laws passed them since 1981.

Proponents of English as the official language see its dominance threatened and consider it the "glue" that holds our country together and a solution to the problems of poverty faced by many ethnic minorities in the United States. If non-English speakers would just learn English, they could get good jobs and climb out of poverty. Which sounds much like the argument that was made for sending American Indian students to off-reservation government boarding schools starting in 1879 and there punishing them for speaking their tribal languages and forcing them to learn English, yet poverty persists for many reservation and urban Indians today.

Examples of linguicism on the state level besides making English the official state language are also be found in the passage of English for the Children propositions passed in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts between 1998 and 2002 that severely limit the use of non-English languages in schools. In Arizona, public schools seeking to offer Navajo language immersion programs for children whose parents want them to learn Navajo have been hampered by Arizona's Proposition 203.

Protestor marching in Phoenix, Arizona, against the anti-bilingual education "English for the Children" Proposition that was passed by Arizona voters in 2001 (Photo by Nathan J. Tohsoni, Navajo Times)

For over two centuries the United States has not had an official language, and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States has guaranteed freedom of religion and required that Congress shall pass no law "abridging the freedom of speech." Despite the conjunction of freedom of religion and speech in the same amendment, linguistic tolerance is not seen in the same light as religious tolerance. No responsible person is proposing an "Official Methodist," "Official Catholic" or "Official Christian" law. However, I would argue that freedom of religion and freedom of speech should be viewed in the same light as both are tied to a larger view of freedom allowing citizens to live life the way they see fit. It is this freedom and tolerance enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that should bind us together.

There seems to be a natural paranoia associated with being in the presence of people speaking a language we do not understand. We seem to be suspicious about what they are talking about and fearful they are talking about, or even against, us. We are generally accepting of people who are like us and speak our language and fearful and distrustful of those who are different. This provincialism, or ethnocentrism as anthropologists term it, was less dangerous in ages past when people were isolated by poor transportation and poor communication, but today when we participate in a world economy with rapid transportation and virtually instantaneous communication, such provincialism carries new dangers.

Opponents of Official English do not see the dominance of English in this country being threatened and see English as able to survive and thrive without government support. In fact, they cite research indicating that it is other, non-English languages that are threatened both in the United States and worldwide by English. They see this call for making English our official language coming at a time when English, without any legal help, is becoming the language of world communication and trade through a process analogous to the competitive free market economy.

As jet transportation and satellite communication tie the world together more closely, we are becoming citizens of the world, but Americans remain relatively unique in the world as mostly monolingual individuals. The U.S. Armed Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, and multi-national corporations all seek to recruit multilingual employees, but they have difficulties because other languages are not valued in the United States. However, many universities recognize the value of multilingualism by requiring that applicants take a second language in high school for admission and even more second language coursework for graduation, but on the whole we do not value multilingualism. Many universities also accept Native American languages to meet their language requirements and some, like mine, even teach them.

If a citizen in this country cannot retain the culture of their choice, then their liberty and citizenship rights are severely limited. Intimately tied to culture are both language and religion. Through language we pass on our culture to our children. Many argue that language and culture cannot be disconnected, and consequently citizenship rights are severely curtailed if laws prevent cultural minorities to be educated and to exercise citizenship rights in the language of their choice.

It is no coincidence that the United States has gone for over two centuries without an official language. The colonists who came here were very vocal about wanting freedom and less government interference with their lives. Religion was more on their minds than language, but when language came up, no action was taken to hinder the liberty of individuals or communities to choose to use a language other than English. English came to dominate this country mostly through forces of the marketplace and mass communication, not by laws, government regulation, or other forced methods.

Multilingualism alone does not cause political instability. One of the oldest politically stable countries in the world, Switzerland, gives evidence of this fact even though the home countries of its major languages, France, Germany, and Italy, have a long history of conflict. An attitude of tolerance towards differences, including language differences, can promote civic peace.

Government policies that dictate linguistic and cultural behavior for citizens limit liberty and marginalize citizens who strongly hold to their cultural roots and, in the words of the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman, their "beloved" languages. Just as the pilgrims were forced to leave England and then chose to leave Holland because they wanted their children to grow up practicing Puritan religious teachings and speaking English, there are minority groups in this country who feel they are under attack: Under attack, not because they are unproductive or anti-social members of society, but because they are different.

Past policies of language repression in the United States have hurt rather than helped minorities. The U.S. Government's Indian schools for over a hundred years tried to suppress American Indian languages, but the remaining Indian schools today have poor records of academic achievement even though many of their students are now monolingual English speakers.

The results of past repressive government policies towards American Indian languages were recognized by Congress in 1990 with the passage of the Native American Languages Act. Congress found in this Act that "the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages" and made it the policy of the United States to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages." This Act also declares that "the right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs."

Government suppression of American Indian languages, cultures, and religions have violated the liberty of our Indian citizens to be who they want to be. There are different forms of slavery and of being a subject rather than a citizen. One form of slavery ended at the Civil War was the forced labor of blacks, but there is another form of slavery that says "you will be like us" whether you like it or not. This form of forced conformity is still being imposed on ethnic minorities in this country to the detriment of full and equal citizenship.

As American Indian languages die, the accumulated wisdom of their cultures as to how people should live together and with nature dies, and that wisdom is often not replaced with any better wisdom from the dominant culture. With the loss of these traditional values and the languages through which they were taught, functioning American Indian communities and families are being weakened, creating dysfunctional families and a myriad of other social problems.

Consequences of discrimination and marginalization include "dropping out," which is characterized by the large percentage of American citizens who do not vote, and radicalization, as seen in the 1960s with American Indian Movement (AIM), Black Panthers, and Brown Berets, where citizens not seeing the government responding to their needs attempt to use violence or the threat of violence to get attention.

Neither consequence is healthy for democracy. The alternative put forward by the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), the National Education Association (NEA), and others advocates of bilingual and bicultural education is a bilingual "English Plus" philosophy that they think is both good for families and for America's ability to compete in a global, multilingual world that is being brought ever closer together through telecommunications and air travel.

In a sense, monolingualism and monoculturalism are a set of blinders that limits our ability to see the possibilities of humanity and limits our view of citizenship. Bilingualism and multiculturalism opens new possibilities for all. These new possibilities often seem to frighten conservatives but are the stuff of democratic citizenship. America was founded on the idea that government can be improved, and that through freedom of speech and of the press citizens should be exposed to all the possibilities and should have the power to even amend the constitution to improve our way of life. It will be ironic if a unique governmental system designed for free expression, expansion, and improvement is changed to shut off discussion, including discussion in other languages.

When I have asked American Indian elders what they want for their grandchildren, I get the answer that they want them to respect their elders, work hard, study in school, not to drink, and, of course, to remember that they are Indian. These are all marks of true citizenship. Traditional American Indian languages and cultures do not threaten citizenship, rather, for the most part, they encourage it.

In contrast, television, radio and videos are the great teachers of a hedonistic, materialistic, and individualistic culture, often brought directly into our classrooms on "Channel One." We have often worked in our schools to cut minorities off from their cultures and families through a quite explicit policy of cultural and linguistic assimilation, and the unintended results have been more alcoholism, drugs, and gangs.

Good citizenship comes down to a set of behaviors that allows for active participation in government through tolerance, compromise, consensus, and cooperation. These human relation skills have not improved through technology. Rather they are related to a cultural tradition of survival found in the traditional wisdom of age-old American Indian and other cultures that is transmitted from generation to generation, primarily in the home using the native language of the parents. Bad citizenship that promotes societal disintegration includes intolerance, racism, unbridled competition, and linguicism.

Legislation making English an official language and opposing bilingual education enforce cultural assimilation help divide "white" America from minority America. It also creates divisions within minorities between those who perceive that being "good Americans" is associated with surface features such as speaking English rather than the underlying principles of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other representations of American democracy, freedom, and tolerance that can be translated into and lived in any language.

While all the push for Official English is disheartening, some good things are happening. On December 14, 2006 the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. This Act is designed to support voluntary Native language immersion programs. There is no question about the patriotism of American Indians as shown in the service of Navajo, Sioux and other code talkers who have used their Native languages to help defend our country. We need positive efforts like the Esther Martinez Act that support Indian Nations, rather than divisive Official English and anti-bilingual education acts that can only tell Native Americans and other groups that they are not real Americans unless they forget their Native language and culture.

Protestors marching in Phoenix against the anti-bilingual education English for the Children Proposition 203 that was passed by Arizona voters in 2001. Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah and Navajo Elder Marjorie Thomas protest the passage of Arizona's anti-bilingual education Proposition 203. (Photos by Nathan J. Tohtsoni, Navajo Times)

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