Keeping language alive
By Ayla Cruz
Professor Misha Becker at UNC-Chapel Hill wanted to spread the message, bilingualism – learning two languages – is not hard! She recently teamed up with colleague Ben Frey, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, to demonstrate to students in a Linguistics summer class how quickly children can pick up a second language! Students in the class traveled to the Cherokee Boundary to experience the revitalization of the Cherokee language.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to keep older languages alive?
A: It is important for the community whose heritage is bound up with that language. Language forms a large part of a person’s identity, and when a community’s language has been forcibly taken away it takes a huge toll on the individuals in that community. There is clear evidence that removal of a language has negative psychological effects.
It is also important from a scientific perspective, both in terms of the scientific knowledge about the language (its structure, how it works), and the knowledge of the environment that traditional people have. This can include important medical knowledge, and other types of knowledge about the plant and animal life of a region.
Q: Why did you choose Cherokee?
A: My research is on how children learn their native language. A few years ago I started teaching a course on bilingualism (learning more than one language), and I realized that a lot of people have the mistaken impression that bilingualism is “hard.” Certainly it’s hard for (some) adults to learn a new language, but (a) it’s not hard for children, and (b) adults can do it too, it’s not impossible! This got me thinking about what this attitude could mean for dying languages: what if people give up trying to teach themselves or their children a language because they think it’s “hard” and the result is that the language dies out? It seemed important to me to try to get the word out that bilingualism is NOT hard.
Q: What did you hope your group would take away from Cherokee?
A: I hoped my students would gain an appreciation of the urgency of the language situation for Eastern Cherokee, and of the challenges facing this community in getting people to learn and keep using the language. Parents want their children to learn Cherokee so that the language doesn’t die out, but at the same time they worry that their children will not have good job prospects if their education is not all in English. But it is hard to convince parents not to worry about it–their children’s English is fine. They could spend an hour a day on English spelling and grammar and be totally fine. But if they only spend an hour a day on Cherokee and the rest of the day is in English, they will not learn Cherokee. Also, different members of the community have different priorities and different ideas about how to approach the issue, so this is another challenge.
I also hoped my students would gain an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the region of the Qualla Boundary.
Q: What is a brief overview of how the trip went in your opinion?
A: I think the trip went really well! We drove straight to Western Carolina University where we met with Dr. Sara Snyder, an ethnomusicologist who teaches there, Dr. Enrique Gomez, an astronomer who also teaches at WCU, and Tom Belt, one of the Cherokee instructors. It was fantastic–they spoke to us for a long time about their various activities and projects, and Tom is an amazing source of knowledge about Cherokee language and culture. After that we drove to Judaculla Rock, an ancient petroglyph, and learned about that.
On the second day we visited New Kituwah Academy, the Cherokee immersion elementary school and talked to Micah Swimmer, the director of the early education program there. We had lunch that day as a picnic in the Oconaluftee Island Park and then toured the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. After that we talked for a long time with Barbara Duncan who works at the museum and has written several books about Cherokee language and culture. Everyone we spoke to was extremely generous with their time and everyone learned a great deal, including me!
On the last morning we stopped at the Kituwah Mound, a sacred site and the site of the original Cherokee village. I think my students really gained not only knowledge about the language, culture and community of the Eastern Cherokees, but a deep appreciation for the importance of language revitalization. Several students commented to me that they found the trip extremely helpful and educational.