How To Save An Endangered Language

By speaking Tlingit at home, Mischa Jackson wants to give her daughter Michaelyn something she didn’t have. Photo courtesy of Alfie Price.
By speaking Tlingit at home, Mischa Jackson wants to give her daughter Michaelyn something she didn’t have. Photo courtesy of Alfie Price.

Speaking an endangered language at home is the essence of language revitalization, according to author Leanne Hinton. She’s written the book Bringing Our Languages Home and was recently in Juneau for the Tlingit Tribes and Clans Conference.

Download Audio

Mischa Jackson and her husband are speaking Tlingit to their 10-month old baby Michaelyn.

“We do little words and phrases and commands at home and try to expose her as much as we can to elders that speak conversationally, so she can just hear it. And she loves to hear it. It gets her attention better than English does,” Jackson says laughing.

Jackson herself doesn’t speak the language well. Her family has roots in Klukwan, but Jackson grew up in Anchorage, then lived in southern California. Her mother taught her Tlingit songs, and that’s about it.

By speaking Tlingit at home, Jackson wants to give her daughter something she didn’t have. Jackson’s husband, on the other hand, was exposed to the language growing up in Kake. “Her dad got to listen to his grandparents and he’s a much better speaker because of it, whereas for me, I can’t make the same sounds as easily as he can, so I know it makes a huge difference,” says Jackson.

Jackson is doing exactly what Leanne Hinton recommends for parents who may not speak a language but want to make it a part of their home.

“All it really takes is dedication to the language. It doesn’t even take fluency because you can be learning with your children,” Hinton explains. “Like many of the families I know started from scratch when their children were already born and as they learned, they were bringing it home bit by bit and making it more and more the language of their home.”

Hinton is professor emeritus of language at the University of California Berkeley. She specialized in American Indian languages, sociolinguistics, and language loss and revival. She’s written a number of books on keeping endangered languages alive and says speaking the native language at home is the key.

Home, she says, is the last place where it disappeared.

“To get it back into the home again is the one time that the language is actually going to become naturally acquired again by children so that actual native speakers are occurring. Once people are learning it at home and using it, then you feel like you’re beginning to be out of danger for the language,” Hinton says.

Hinton says ideally parents would only speak the endangered language at home, but that’s usually not the case. “Most of the people that I’ve interviewed are lucky if they use it 50 percent of the time, and 50 percent of the time is actually a fairly good ratio,” she says, “but you want more for an endangered language if possible.”

Parents, like Jackson, who speak their Native language at home will likely face some challenges when their children go to school and their peers and teachers are speaking English. Hinton says children may then refuse to speak the Native language at home, but there are ways to tackle this problem.

“One way is to start trying to talk about how important it is to use the language but that may not go over with a 5-year-old,” says Hinton. “Some parents just simply won’t respond to their kids if their kids talk to them in English. They’ll talk to the kids in their endangered language and if the kids talk back in English, they just say, ‘I don’t understand.’ Sometimes that works quite well.”

Another option is making language a game. Imagine jars with pennies inside. Every family member gets one. If a person catches another saying something in English that could be said in their indigenous language, that person gets to take a penny out of the other’s jar and put it into their own jar.

At this point, Jackson doesn’t have to worry about those challenges yet. She says her daughter Michaelyn isn’t saying much, in English or in Tlingit, “Every once in a while we laugh because it sounds like she’s says, ‘dlaa,’ like she’s saying, ‘haa dlaa,’ so we crack up whenever she does that.”

That’s Tlingit for, ‘Gee whiz.’