Making a difference in native language communities

A shared language is an important marker of identity for cultural groups. But what happens when the original language goes away?

As English and shared media become more prevalent, it can be difficult to preserve languages spoken only by small communities of native speakers. Preserving shared languages is one of the aims of the Northwest Indian Languages Institute (NILI). In addition to its primary mission of providing teacher training and curriculum development, NILI is directly involved in the documentation, preservation and restoration of native languages.

The center helps preserve living native languages through traditional, community-based language creation and dissemination programs. NILI draws together multigenerational groups of speakers to share and experience language immersion together.

“NILI directly supports tribal communities by training speakers and learners in the skills needed to return to their home communities as Native language teachers, activists and leaders in their community,” said Janne Underriner, director.

Some of NILI’s recent efforts were on display at the recent 2014 Summer Institute, a gathering of seven major language groups from the Northwest: Chinuk Wawa, Choctaw, Ichishkíin, Klamath, Lushootseed, Northern Paiute and Tolowa Dee-ni.

The institute included the second year of the new Youth Language Activist and Leadership Program, intended to help high school students learn about curriculum development and language mentoring. During the program, students interact with teachers and elders during group seminars on activism, teaching methods and linguistics.

After leaving the institute, students remain engaged with NILI through a distance-learning program run by Robert Elliott, associate director of educational technology. With guidance from Elliott, students work closely with elders to create interactive stories featuring spoken language, pictures and videos. They use iPads and other tools to share their stories with younger students.

The Takelma Language Restoration Project, run by Joana Jansen, associate director of project development, is focused on reconstructing the Takelma language — using publications and notes created by linguist Edward Sapir at the turn of the century. With assistance from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe Indians, NILI staff members are converting Sapir’s notes into a database of sounds and words that can be used to create educational materials for the tribe’s language programs.

NILI’s primary focus may be on training language educators, but there’s a very important outgrowth of the work that goes on in the center. By supporting a variety of educational and linguistic programs, NILI is helping ensure that rich language traditions can be passed on to the next generation.