February 19, 2007

The importance of Native languages

Native voices going extinctHarrison said that Western biologists are only now beginning to unravel the diversity of plants and species that local inhabitants have long understood and catalogued in their rich vocabulary.

For example, recent research discovered that a butterfly in Costa Rica wasn't one species but 10. Yet the local Tzeltal people had already called the caterpillars by different names, because they attacked different crops.
Some recent successes:[R]ecent success in reviving several aboriginal tongues is rousing hope that the tide of language extinction is not inevitable, delegates at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard. Some examples:

  • The language of Miami-Illinois Indians, long classed as extinct, is now spoken daily by at least 50 people after a major "reclamation" effort.

  • Languages on the brink of extinction are being recorded for future revival--such as that of the Chulym, a tribe of hunters and fishers in Siberia.

  • A master-apprentice program is rejuvenating some of the 50 threatened aboriginal languages in California.

  • More than 2,000 schoolchildren are now fluent speakers of Hawaiian, a language banned from schools in Hawaii for almost a century.
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