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Professor backs "survival schools" for Native American languages

– Native American language "survival schools" must have long-term funding to save these languages from extinction, University of California, Berkeley, professor Leanne Hinton recently told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

View a webcast of the Senate hearing on Native American language survival schools

"Native American languages are in a major state of decline. The present and future language survival schools can turn this sad state of affairs around for at least some languages," Hinton said after testifying May 15 in support of legislation proposed by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to provide long-term funding for language survival schools.

These preschool and other schools offer a complete education through instruction in a Native American language, with the purpose of strengthening, revitalizing or reestablishing a Native American language and culture.

Throughout her career, Hinton, a professor of linguistics and chair of the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department, has worked with Native American languages and on issues relating to language revitalization. She is the incoming president of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, and hosts the biennial "Breath of Life" conference at UC Berkeley to revive languages for tribes with no speakers left.

Of 85 indigenous languages in California, Hinton told the committee, 35 have no speakers left and the remaining 50 are spoken only by a handful of elders.

"Along with their languages are being lost eloquent speech-making and story-telling skills, powerful oral literature, philosophical frameworks, environmental knowledge, and diverse world views," Hinton testified.

Also testifying at the Washington, D.C., hearing was Mary Hermes, an associate professor of education at the University of Minnesota who has two children in an Ojibwe language immersion school in Hayward, Wis. Hermes noted research showing that Native American children - like African-American children - have long been given the message that they can be either a Native American or a smart, educated person, but they can't be both.

Language can be the key to reconciling these two identities, Hermes said. By using indigenous languages for instruction in schools, children no longer see a conflict between education and Native identity.

"For these endangered indigenous languages, the children come to school already knowing English - they have learned it at home from their parents, from television, from their peers, and from virtually every experience in their lives involving speech," Hinton testified. "The survival schools level the playing field."

A Hawaiian contingent at the committee hearing said that not a single child has dropped out of Hawaiian language survival schools before graduation in the 15 years the highly successful program has been in operation there. The program's graduates boast an 85 percent acceptance rate at colleges and universities, and one is attending Stanford University in the fall.

The 1992 Native American Languages Act (NALA) established funding for tribes to develop language revitalization programs. A number of successful language survival programs were set up, partially funded by the Administration for Native Americans, which handles NALA funds. Due to NALA's limited budget, however, schools generally can only be funded for about three years.

"The challenge is to find long-term funding for these schools, and that is the major issue that S 575 addresses," Hinton told the Committee on Indian Affairs.

"Long ago, previous congressional acts devoted enormous efforts to the schools that were charged with the eradication of Native American languages and cultural traditions," she testified. "Now in this hopefully wiser time, it behooves the Congress to devote an equivalent amount of funds to help indigenous peoples retain the languages that we erased from their lives."

Inouye expects his bill to emerge from committee and reach the Senate floor for a vote sometime in July. To learn more about the proposed legislation, visit the