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The story, at least so far, spans three decades and three continents. She came by plane, flying over the Pacific, leaving Tokyo behind. He came by ship, crossing the Atlantic, looking back at his home in Istanbul. Their paths would zig and zag, until one day they would meet in, of all places, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each brought a homeland, each brought a native tongue; yet they lived in a third land, communicated in a third language. And this third realm would become home--perhaps more home than the homes they left behind. And their unusual union would produce two children, a boy and a girl. They would know this place, America, as home. But they would know that part of them came from far-off corners they could scarcely imagine, let alone understand.
These children would grow and think and learn. They would do this in English. The girl would grow up, one day, and visit the far-flung lands of her origins with her parents, at once learning about the histories of these foreign places and the histories of her foreign families. She would study languages herself, German, French, even a bit of Japanese, with varying degrees of proficiency. She would spend her days working on her English--not the grammar, nor vocabulary, but the crafting of phrases.
But if you start to climb into this unfamiliar territory, your thoughts must be compressed down into the skeletal language you possess. It's scary not to be able to say what you want or understand what's going on around you. But if you slowly, steadily, climb the hill, the vista may be quite beautiful.
Mimicking the unfamiliar sounds of a new language. Figuring out the architecture of a foreign grammar. Learning a rudimentary vocabulary. Some people like to solve riddles of logic or discover visual patterns; I like the puzzle of a new language. It's like unlocking a secret code that opens up an entirely new world of possibility.
Yesterday you had no idea how to say "cousin" in Dakota, or "window" in French, or "fish" in Japanese. Today you do. This is the fun stage, before the struggle begins as you try to really speak and listen and think and dream in this foreign tongue.
federal Indian boarding school movement took off in the late 1870s.
From then until 1920--and sometimes even later--Indian children were plucked from their homes and placed in government-run schools whose main mission was assimilation, or the "civilizing" of Indians to accept Christian values and speak English.
A Sioux Indian camp, 1875 PHOTO COURTESY OF MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
They were forced to abandon their traditional ways of dress, their ceremonial and religious beliefs.
And they were forbidden to speak their native languages. In many published accounts of their days in boarding schools throughout the country, Native Americans describe facing cruel punishment for breaking the "English-only" rules.
Some recall being beaten or spanked or slapped with rulers.
Others were made to live on only bread and water or were locked in the school jail.
As a result of this abuse--and the prevailing notion that their own cultures and languages were somehow dirty and inferior--many of the students sent to boarding schools never became fluent speakers of their own language.
They could not pass the language down to future generations. Even those who did retain their language skills often opted not to teach their children, for fear that they would face the same discrimination.
Over the years fewer and fewer American Indians learned to speak their own languages. And so it is that even generations later, these kids are suffering the consequences.
Dakota language at the University of Minnesota
Rebecca is from the Flandreau Reservation in South Dakota. She is one of a group of students from her high school that squished into a van and traveled six hours to attend this conference on the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota.
The program, sponsored by the American Indian Studies Department, the nonprofit Grotto Foundation, and other organizations, hopes to raise awareness that it's now or never: Without concentrated efforts to promote and revitalize it, the ancient language could one day become extinct.
In Minnesota, 7,541 people identify themselves as either as Sioux or part Sioux--another name for Dakota, the people who first tended this land we call Minnesota today ("Sioux" includes Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes).
The Dakota language, as native tongues go, is fairly robust: There are 15,000 people with some Dakota language skills in the United States and 5,000 in Canada, according to Ethnologue , the publication of the language group SIL International.
But there are less than 30 fluent speakers left in Minnesota's four Dakota communities (that figure does not account for people who speak the language less fluently, people who live in Minnesota outside the reservations, or Dakota speakers in other states and Canada).
In any case, the numbers are small enough that the coordinators of the conference say it's time to take action to prevent this language from disappearing. And so this afternoon we're sitting in a special workshop aimed at increasing the students' interest in learning Dakota. Most of them repeat in a monotone that they're here today to learn about their language and culture. Most of them know a little, but not much. Some of them aren't quite interested enough to come back to the classroom after a short break.
Though Rebecca's father speaks Dakota, he didn't pass the language down to his children. She doesn't know why he didn't, but she'd like to learn more of the language now, to speak it with her little nephews so they can grow up with the language. But it's a challenge to find the time to take classes or speak with elders. "It's hard because I've been working and stuff," she admits. "They're looking to us as the next generation to keep this all going, and we don't even know our own language. We don't even know our own traditions."
We've learned that there are certain words that only men say, and some that only women say. For example, a man would call a male cousin tahansi , but a woman would call a male cousin ic'esi . All in all, the afternoon lessons are an interesting exercise, offering the kids a tiny introduction to the language of their heritage.
You've got to create the interest in learning the language. You've got to create an opportunity for immersion in the language in order to gain fluency. Only then can you start to think in that language, even dream in it. And, in the case of Dakota and other indigenous languages, you've got to counteract hundreds of years of oppression and forced assimilation by the dominant culture.
Oahe Indian School children on school steps, 1905 PHOTO COURTESY OF MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
I would watch and listen as my father would chat and joke and laugh with these people--all in a language he never spoke to me, that I never understood. I would get lost in the gentle swirl of the Turkish language, floating on its melody without the slightest comprehension. But even so, this place was not totally strange. Sights we saw, foods we ate, people we met--these were all things that I'd grown up with, in some way, through the words and actions of my father.
My grandmother was so excited to see me that she was all broad smiles and gentle embraces. I wondered how she could feel so connected to me when we couldn't even talk to each other. Yes, I was her granddaughter. But she didn't really know me at all. One afternoon I found myself alone with her in her parlor. Knowing that she spoke French, I tried to start a conversation. With all of three semesters of French under my belt, I could say things like, "It's a nice day," and "I'm cold," and "How are you?" Needless to say, the conversation was far from deep. But sometimes the power of communication resides simply in sitting in the same room, together.
After our sojourn in Istanbul, Dad went back to Minnesota and I went to Germany, where I was spending the summer working for a TV network. Immersed in German, my first foreign language (and, incidentally, my college major), my skills advanced significantly in three months.
But by the time I returned to school in New York that fall, I was smitten with the idea of taking up Turkish. As I worked on fitting it into my schedule, I mentioned the idea to Dad. "Ugh," he grunted. "Don't do that. If you're going to take a new language, take something more useful. Like Arabic." This was not the enthusiastic response I had anticipated. Perplexed, I dropped the idea.
In many cases, parents chose not to teach their children Dakota or Ojibwe, to protect them from the discrimination they had endured. A noble idea, but the result is a crisis: If children do not learn their native tongue, what happens to their traditions, their ceremonies, their identities? Without the language, can the culture survive?
"Language defines one's world," Regguinti posits. "In Ojibwe, these words communicate so much more. It's just not possible to express that in English. It helps to underscore our interconnectedness to all, our relationship to all. I can feel it. But I have no way to fully express it."
There are immersion programs. In Pine County, for example, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have dedicated 67 acres to a camp where people can come to immerse themselves in the Ojibwe language, through classes, traditional ceremonies, and seasonal work chores.
By the fall of 1997, I had learned to form basic sentences. I had also moved from Seattle to Denver, where cowboy culture vastly overpowered the teeny Japanese community. The move was the beginning of the end of my Japanese studies, though I kept it up for a few months through weekly private lessons.
On our last day, Mom and I were leaving my grandmother's house, set back in the maze of narrow streets that wind through Tokyo. I hugged my grandmother, 80 years old and so tiny it felt as though she might break under the embrace. I had practiced and practiced this sentence: "Let's meet at Ali's wedding" (my brother was going to be married the following spring).
" Ali no kekkon-shiki de aimashoo ," I said.
My bad pronunciation and my grandmother's declining hearing required that I repeat my special phrase again. Slowly the recognition of the words lit up her eyes. She nodded her head vigorously and grabbed my hand in hers, an exuberant smile blossoming on her face.
That was the only time I've ever spoken directly to my grandmother.
"It makes me cry," she whispers, adding that the elders who speak fluently won't be here forever. "We're getting older." The Littleghosts adopted a son and daughter and taught them Dakota. Now, their four grandchildren are also learning the language. The kids' other grandmother, Aileen says, is Apache, but she doesn't speak the language.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf explored the relationship between language and thought. Roughly stated, the hypothesis that he and colleague Edward Sapir developed holds that a person's understanding of the world is shaped by her native language.
Dad's view, one grounded in personal experience, was distinctly anti-Whorfian. What's the big deal? He and Mom were both fluent English speakers, able to express and understand the most intricate, intimate ideas. Communicating thoughts, concepts, and emotions was the crucial thing--not the language in which they were shared.
It made sense. After all, Dad had never spoken to me in his native tongue (except certain words of discipline), and I had never thought there was a lack of understanding between us that went beyond the basic conflicts between parents and children. Perhaps this is why the connection between our language and our identity is so intriguing.
"I do not believe that language entirely determines the way you think," says Luisa Maffi, president of Terralingua, a Washington, D.C.-based organization promoting linguistic and biological diversity. But, she says, "The language you're most familiar with is the one you're most accustomed to thinking in terms of."
It's also matter of personal experience for Maffi, who herself is multilingual. She grew up in Italy, speaking Italian, but she also speaks Spanish, French, and English. She still speaks Italian with her family, which allows her to retain ties to her native culture. "But if I had stopped speaking Italian, I might have forgotten a lot more about my native culture," she says. "The more you become detached from your language, background, heritage, it's less likely you'll be able to retain that cultural perspective. It's pretty evident that there are costs and benefits. One is not necessarily able to maintain the full complement of a native worldview when you go from one language to another, one way of life to another. It might be that you talk about cars and movies rather than the plant and animal world or the spirit world."
But how can you tell when a language is endangered? According to Vanishing Voices , a book about the extinction of languages written by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, of the estimated 5,000 to 6,700 languages that exist today throughout the world, at least half will become extinct over the next 100 years. In 1492 when Columbus arrived in the region of the United States, linguists believe, there were some 300 languages spoken. Only 175 are still spoken today, and many of those appear to be just a generation away from extinction.
Still, she continues, "Languages change all the time. How do you know when something is not just a 'normal' change, that it's the beginning of the loss of the language?" The answer is relatively simple: The language is not being taught to the children. "You have a very clear sign that its use in a given society is at risk," Maffi explains.
And that's why there is such an emphasis on creating immersion programs where kids can learn Native American languages. U of M Dakota instructor Neil McKay stresses the need for people of all ages to participate in these types of immersion programs--there is even ongoing discussion of creating a Dakota immersion school in the Twin Cities.
Even as it does its best to emphasize native culture, Four Winds can't focus solely on those areas. As a public school, it must maintain some standard curriculum. And of its 471 students, only 60 percent are American Indian (and most of them are Ojibwe). African American students make up 35 percent of the school, white students 4 percent, and Asian American and Latino the remaining 1 percent. "We tried to have an immersion program, but we backed out because the real challenge was to get our kids capable in reading, capable in math," he says.
"The only way to retain a language is to use it," says McKay, who is part Dakota and part Ojibwe. His Dakota father was sent to a boarding school, so he never became a fluent speaker. McKay himself knew only bits and pieces of Dakota before he became a student at the U of M. In 1995 he had an experience that, with the help of interpretation by a Dakota elder, led him to start studying Dakota. Today he is proficient, on his way to being fluent, and he's teaching his children, ages 3 years and 10 months, to speak Dakota.
"One of the big keys is to see little kids speaking it," he says. "When I see a little child speaking the language, it makes me want to cry. When our people see that, they'll know the language has a good chance of living on."
My parents made a conscious choice not to teach their languages to my brother and me. They didn't want to choose between Japanese and Turkish, and they didn't want to structure our environment with the rigidity necessary to separate Japanese time, Turkish time, and English time. They wanted us to develop solid English skills and have a solid identity in the United States.
The writer (right) with brother Ali (left) and grandmother Kikuyo Kato (Obaachan), at a Tokyo playground
There have been times when I've regretted their choice. With a sigh, I would consider how useful these languages might have proved as I made my way in the world. I would have liked to be able to speak to my grandparents, to ask them questions about their lives and histories. Would I have been a different person, had I learned these languages? Would I have a different sense of self, a different perspective on the world?
A family trip to Izmir, Turkey: (from left) Büyükanne, Ali Kokmen (writer's brother), Tomoko Kokmen (writer's mother), the writer, and Büyükbaba
My father died last year. The loss was unfathomable; I have only begun to comprehend it. Though he is still with me today, through his stories, though his lessons, through his infectious love of life and learning, I sometimes wonder if losing him means that I have lost the ties to my Turkish heritage. I'm not sure. Had I foreseen that my time with him would be so limited, perhaps I would have rethought that decision not to study Turkish, years ago. I don't know.
What I do know is that the choices my parents made, and the choices I made, have helped define who I am and how I view the world. But I also realize that they were choices. We made them ourselves. They weren't forced upon us by racism or imperialism or fear.
First, it's important to create awareness that languages are threatened. That's what events like the Dakota language conference and the grants provided by the Grotto Foundation aim to do. It's important, too, to take stock in the language today: How many people can speak it fluently, proficiently, or just a little? What resources are available for learning the language? Why has it become endangered?
"When we talk about the future, we have to talk about the past," says Dallas Ross, addressing the crowd at the U of M's language conference. "Without looking back, how do we know why we're in the situation we are in today? Without understanding this moment, how are we going to look to the future in hopes of causing something good?
If we sit idly by and allow languages to disappear from the planet, we're not sure what we might lose. We could lose knowledge of medicinal uses of particular plants, offers David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. Locked within the languages of ancient people living along the Amazon could be a cure for cancer--without the language, it would be lost. "We don't know more precisely what we might be missing out on," Harrison says. "A language is an immense storehouse of knowledge. It's like an entire library burning down."
But on a smaller, more personal level, the loss could be just as great. We may lose the stories of our ancestry. We may lose the rituals that bring us closer to our gods. We may lose the ability to talk to our grandmothers. We may not realize it today, but we will feel the loss forever.