The 950 members of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe of a reservation outside Port Angeles, Wash. (and nearby areas) have taken steps to stop the apparently inevitable decline of their language, according to this Washington Post article by Robert E. Pierre.
After a century of open hostility toward these languages, the federal government is helping to foot the bill. But the task is daunting: Of about 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States, about 20 are being passed on to another generation. The pressure to converse in English, the worldwide language of commerce, also isn’t abating….
In this northwest corner of Washington, the Lummi have just one remaining speaker. The last fluent speaker of Makah died in August at age 100. As far as anyone can tell, there are only three or four remaining speakers of Klallam, which is one of the large family of Salish languages that were once prevalent in the upper Northwest and British Columbia.
Even in California, which has speakers or semi-speakers of about 50 indigenous languages, the future seems grim.
“The trouble is that there is not an indigenous language where children are learning, and all the fluent speakers are over 60,” said Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has written books and essays about California languages. “All of them are in their last stages of existence unless something is done. Documenting the language is absolutely vital because . . . even when trying to revitalize them, you’re not able to produce speakers as fast as speakers are dying.”
So linguist Timothy Montler (see his web page for links to information on Klallam and other languages) “has devoted much of the past decade to preserving the language of the Klallam,” having been asked by the tribe to help in 1992. He has created an alphabet, a dictionary, other reference works, even computer games, and trained “cultural specialists” are going into the schools and helping the young people learn. I can’t think of a better way for linguists to spend their time. (Thanks to Andrew Krug for the link.)