Rethinking Learning
conversations about the future of teaching and learning
Barbara Bray
be creative, innovate, take risks, unlearn to learn
Oakland, CA

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What happens when a language dies?
By Barbara Bray    February 11, 2008 -- 09:05 AM

Have you ever heard of the Eyak language? With the death of Marie Smith of Alaska, this aboriginal language has died. With the spread of English and suppression of native languages, more will end.

Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language of the Alaskan Indians, died in January at her home in Anchorage. She was 89. Chief Jones worked diligently to preserve her native tongue and other indigenous Alaskan languages. She was the last person to have learned the language the traditional way, taught as a child from her parents. A tribute in the SitNews.

Her long-time language documentarian, linguist Dr. Michael Krauss began working with her in 1962. He says Chief Marie kept the language going for many years after her older sister died in the early 1990s. Here’s her story and an interview of Dr. Krauss:

About Chief Marie Smith RSSPodcast:

NPR also tells her story and captured her voice on this show.

Did you know that a language dies every 14 years - mabe sooner? Many of those languages are in North America. Did you know that 90% of the world’s 6,000 languages could be extinct by the next century?

See this list of extinct languages, or this list of recently extinct languages with  the date of death of the last speaker. Here’s a map from the Alaska Native Language Center.

Each language has different meanings for words. I’m not a linguist but I do understand that we may never understand the true meaning of an Eyak word or of other words in indigenous languages. These languages were about a time long ago, about cultures and stories also dying. Who will tell their stories?

Consider the Eyak word c’a tht means "silky, water-saturated mud that gums between your toes." There is not English word for this. We probably don’t need it because we probably don’t walk in mud with bare feet. Another word we may not need but means alot in Eyak is demexch: the word for soft spot in ice. This means two things to the Eyak: be careful and could be good place to fish.

Maybe this is similar to text messaging. Maybe this new generation will create a new language with words that have multiple meanings. Wouldn’t it be great for our children to study indigenous languages, find people that speak the languages and capture their voices, maybe even tell and share their stories?

Even if you learn another language like Eyak, you cannot understand the true meaning. Someone has to tell the stories.

Categories: "Authentic Learning" "Conversations" "Culture" "Storytelling"

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