Bilingual Street Signs Herald a New Era of Language Revitalization
by Frank Hopper
Indian Country Today Media Network
Earlier this month, the city of Port Angeles, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, installed bilingual street signs at two intersections, honoring the local Klallam people, whose culture has existed in the area for approximately 10,000 years. The street signs at the intersections of Oak and Front streets and on Oak Street and Railroad Avenue are now displayed in both English and Klallam.
The new signs are part of a phased redevelopment of the Port Angeles waterfront, according to Nathan West, the city’s Director of Community and Economic Development.
“As a matter of priority, the city wanted to incorporate cultural elements important to the Klallam people,” West told ICTMN. “Phase 2 of the project established a new downtown park, the goal of which was to embrace the local Klallam community by celebrating their longstanding heritage on the waterfront.”
The city held meetings with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council to help create nine cultural elements to be incorporated in the park’s theme.
“The Tribe was asked to provide names for two newly created beaches that replaced a riprap shoreline. Two circle-up areas were constructed out of respect for traditional tribal canoe journey circle-up areas. One of the circle-up areas implemented a medallion with the Klallam creation story. Cultural and historic markers extend along the Waterfront Trail in the park, creating a timeline that begins with important dates in Klallam history and integrates European settlement history with important Klallam cultural dates.”
The idea of having bilingual street signs for intersections near the park originally came from city council member Sissi Bruch, who is also Senior Planner of the Elwha Klallam Tribe’s Planning Department. Klallam Language teacher Wendy Sampson helped with the translations. The city’s Public Works and Utilities Department elicited the assistance of local company Bailey’s Signs to ensure accurate and appropriate fonts and characters were used. West also notes how Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Chair Frances Charles aided the grant funding of the project with her letters of support and Jamestown S’Klallam CEO Ron Allen also supported the project from its conception.
Port Gamble Reservation.
According to their website, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe estimates in 1990, only eight people knew how to speak Klallam. In 1992, the tribe developed the Klallam Language Program in which tribal elders were recorded and those recordings transcribed to document and preserve the Klallam language. However, creating a record is not sufficient to save an indigenous language from extinction.
“You have to learn your language; it’s the backbone of your culture,” Jamie Valdez, who teaches Klallam at Port Angeles High School, says on the tribe’s website. “If you don’t learn your language, you can’t truly practice your culture. If you are just practicing without any language, you are just touching the surface. You have to go deeper and learn the language, you have to use the language.”
Since 1999, when the language first began being taught at Port Angeles High School, over 200 students have taken two years of Klallam language instruction. Adult language classes are also available as well as video games and CD-ROM Klallam language lessons.
In addition to rejuvenating interest in learning their tribe’s language, the work of the Klallam people to revitalize their culture has now influenced a city government. Nathan West, of the city of Port Angeles, who spearheaded the waterfront redevelopment project, described a new attitude of coexistence and harmony with indigenous communities that didn’t exist even a few decades ago.
“Collectively our goal with the park and street signs is to demonstrate that we are one community, and respect of the important cultural heritage of the Klallam people is an essential element in accomplishing that goal.”
The work of indigenous language revitalization is often said to be one of the main elements of decolonization. The bilingual street signs near Waterfront Park in Port Angeles are evidence of this principle in action.
Welsh is considered a model for language revitalization, but its fate is still uncertain
June 24, 2015 · 6:15 PM EDT
By Patrick Cox
Welsh is just another of those ancient languages that aren’t going to be around for much longer, right?
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s difficult to tell.
But it is a test case, a minority language with a chance of surviving. If Welsh can do it, maybe others can too.
The stakes are high, not just for the 740,000 people who speak Welsh today but for speakers of thousands of minority languages around the world.
Like its Celtic cousins Scottish Gaelic and Irish, Welsh suffers from its proximity to the English-speaking world. But Welsh has stuck around while the other Celtic languages have lost most of their speakers. In Scotland, many assert their difference from Britain by voting for independence. In Wales, they do it by speaking Welsh.
A few decades ago, things weren’t looking so rosy. Welsh was in sharp decline. If parents spoke it, they didn’t pass it on to their kids, who didn’t learn it at school either. In the population centers of South Wales, Welsh was long gone.
“I never heard Welsh in my family,” says Julian Ruck, a writer who grew up in Swansea in the 1960s. “I never heard Welsh at school, and I never heard the Welsh language amongst my friends.”
After finishing school, Ruck left Wales for London and didn’t return for 30 years.
“It was a culture shock when I came back,” says Ruck. “I had no idea that the promotion of the Welsh language had progressed so far. It was almost like coming back to a foreign country.”
Ruck isn’t happy about this turn of events. But he’s in a minority. Most Welsh people want the language to stick around.
Today, there are TV shows in Welsh, produced in local studios. There are schools too that use Welsh as the language of instruction. In Cardiff alone, there are 17 Welsh-language elementary schools. Thirty years ago, there was one.
“Their children are going to Welsh language schools, so the parents go to evening classes to learn Welsh,” says Ian Cox, who himself is taking classes in Cardiff.
“I lived here all my life and decided it’s about time ... to learn the language,” Cox says. “Everywhere we go abroad people say, ‘Do you speak Welsh?’ and it was embarrassing that we couldn’t, so we decided to learn.”
At the same conversation class I find Esther Leman, an Indonesian who has led a nomadic existence.
“When I was living in Hong Kong, I didn’t learn the local language — Cantonese.” she says. “I regret it. So I have decided that wherever I live, I will learn the local language.”
Her Welsh, she says, isn’t bad.
“At the moment, I can understand local TV in Welsh,” she says. “Not that I’m that crazy about rugby, but it is nice to see things that are only in Welsh.”
The commitment of so many to the language is impressive. Of course, these are learners. To become fluent, to turn themselves into something approaching natural speakers, they’d need to take things further.
That’s what Jamie Bevan did. His first language is English, although he studied some Welsh at school. When he was in his late 20s, he and his family — mother, siblings and finally his father — decided to start talking to each other in Welsh.
I ask him if anything got lost when they switched to a language that that wasn’t their mother tongue — and wasn’t the one they forged their family ties in.
“Definitely not,” Bevan says. “All of us as a family have gained so much. It’s something we regret not having done earlier.”
Bevan has expressed that zeal in other ways. He is language activist and chairman of the Welsh Language Society. He has served jail time for acts of civil disobedience, like refusing to respond to court summons written in English.
Protest has been at the heart of Welsh language activism for decades. It’s helped Welsh achieve its official status, alongside English.
What Bevan has done with his family is clearly exceptional. It’s the private, personal nature of it — the part that is missing in most Welsh learners’ experience of the language. Children are learning Welsh in schools, but what about at home? How can non-native speakers make that leap to growing up in Welsh, playing games in Welsh, falling in love in Welsh?
It is something that Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws thinks about a lot.
“We now have young people who are first generation Welsh within their families,” says Huws. “Within the home environment they have no one else to communicate with in that language.”
Many of these new first generation Welsh speakers are in their teens now. Huws says the challenge is to ensure that they have the opportunity to communicate in Welsh outside the structured environment of school.
Huws is the first Welsh language commissioner; the role was established in 2011. Her office issues advice and directives on the use of Welsh, although the extent of her authority is still unclear.
For language activists, the commissioner’s oversight should help ensure the future of Welsh. For Julian Ruck — the writer who returned to Wales after an absence of 30 years — it’s just another wasteful layer of bureaucracy.
“I just do not believe that it merits having tax payers’ hard-earned money being spent on it, particularly as it is — or seems to be — dying,” says Ruck. “Throwing all this money at it has not worked.”
Now that may sound like an odd conclusion given all the enthusiasm for the language. But Ruck has a point. Welsh is imperilled — not in the cities where people are taking it up but in the places where it is spoken naturally: rural, often poor parts of north and west Wales.
“There’s been a great change in the demography of the area over the past 30 to 40 years,” says Peredur Lynch who heads the School of Welsh at the Bangor University. “You’d have to go back to medieval times to see such big change in the population in this part of the world.”
Retirees from across the border in England have moved to this area in huge numbers, and they are setting a new linguistic path.
Lynch grew up in a village that was mainly Welsh-speaking. He didn’t start speaking English until he was 8 or 9. Today, the village is no longer majority Welsh.
As for his own family, Lynch’s children speak Welsh at home and at school, “But of course they pick up English, it’s all around them. They watch The Simpsons.”
Under such circumstances, it doesn’t take much, linguists say, for a minority language community to flip to the majority language. Once a community drops below 70 percent minority language speakers, it’s in trouble. The part of Wales that Lynch comes from is down to 69 percent Welsh speakers.
The latest national census also reflects that. It finds fewer Welsh speakers overall. Some policymakers are now calling for protective measures — even so far as restricting new housing projects if they dilute the concentration of Welsh speakers.
Rapper Dybl-L has heard all this, and witnessed it in his tours of small Welsh communities. Dybl-L (“The first letters in my name are Ll, which is a Welsh letter and is pronounced clllllth”) is also from this same Welsh-speaking region. He used to rap in English.
“A friend of mine asked me: ‘Why don’t you try rapping in Welsh?’” he says. “I found out it was more natural to rap in my native language.”
Now that he’s switched languages, Dybl-L finds his raps about more personal stuff
“Living with a single parent, breaking up with girlfriends and stuff like that,” he says of his subject matter. “I feel I can put more feeling into my words when I rap in Welsh.”
It’s impossible to know yet what’ll happen to Welsh. Clearly many people feel more comfortable using it. Even some people who don’t speak it well — or at all — view it with intense pride. And yet, the threats are real, and growing. What would happen to the language if its linguistic heartlands — its lungs, as one activist puts it — collapsed? Would the revival of Welsh elsewhere withstand such a blow?
Its fate will be closely observed, especially in those few pockets of linguistic diversity in the English-speaking world.
Whatever happens, Welsh has become a test case for language survival — and possibly, revival.
In Japan's Okinawa, saving indigenous language is about more than words
by Anna Fifield
November 29, 2014
NISHIHARA, Japan — Rising in turn at their wooden desks, the students giggled, squirmed or shuffled as they introduced themselves, some practically in a whisper.
“Waa naamee ya — yaibiin . . . (My name is . . . ).” One by one, the classmates at Okinawa Christian University managed to get out their names, a few confidently, but most of them sheepishly.
Teacher Byron Fija waved his arms around, laughed and tried to encourage the class, which looked like a college group anywhere — some in hoodies, others in baseball caps and one guy with green hair.
But it was clear that the language — Okinawan — didn’t come naturally to most of them.
It’s the biggest of the six main indigenous languages spoken in this subtropical Japanese island chain, once the independent Ryukyu kingdom but now best known for hosting most of the American military bases in Japan.
Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879 and then occupied by the United States for almost 30 years after World War II. Okinawans say they feel that Tokyo treats them like second-class citizens, citing as evidence the noisy, invasive American bases concentrated in the islands.
And the suppression of their languages, almost to the point of extinction, is to them Exhibit No. 2.
Identity as islanders
UNESCO categorizes the Ryukyu languages as “definitely” or “severely” endangered, meaning that children no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in the home or that it is spoken only by grandparents and older generations.
The agency estimates that, if nothing is done, half of the world’s 6,000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the century, taking with them “cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge.”
But that outcome could be avoided, UNESCO says, with policies to maintain or revitalize mother tongues and teach them to younger generations.
“I’m from here. Of course I should learn the language,” said Kai Irei, one of the students learning elementary Okinawan from Fija (and answering a reporter’s questions in English). “If I don’t speak Okinawan, I can’t say I’m from Okinawa.”
Fija is almost evangelical in his promotion of Okinawan, poetically called “uchi-naa-guchi” here.
In addition to teaching, Fija, 45, plays the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan banjo, and sings. For five years he hosted a radio show in Okinawan.
He sees the language as intrinsic to his identity. A product of the military occupation, he is the son of an Okinawan mother and an American father, a man he has never heard from.
Fija cites two experiences that motivated him to embrace the local language and culture.
First, he learned to play the sanshin.
“Someone told me that my playing was fine but my Okinawan sounded American, even though I don’t speak any English. Maybe it was because I don’t look Japanese or Okinawan,” Fija said after class, wearing a traditional Japanese outfit with an Okinawan pattern. His Okinawan pronunciation, he said, was the equivalent of a Japanese person singing in English “I rub you” instead of “I love you.”.
Then, in the 1990s, he spent a year or so in Los Angeles, hoping to make it as a rock star. But as he discovered how hard that was, he had an epiphany. Because of his Caucasian looks, he said, he had never really been accepted as Japanese. But with no knowledge of his father and little proficiency in English, he clearly wasn’t American, either.
In the United States, he found his identity. He was Okinawan.
A political issue
Ask any proponent of the Ryukyu languages in Okinawa the most basic question about them and you will immediately hear a spiel about why they are languages in their own right and not dialects of Japanese. Advocates see efforts to classify them as dialects as further evidence of oppression.
The Romance languages Spanish, French and Italian share about 80 percent of their vocabulary, linguists say. But Japanese and the Ryukyu languages, while in the same “Japonic” family, have only 60 percent of their words in common, making the gap between them greater than that between English and German.
“Ever since the Japanese annexation of Okinawa, our languages were considered to be second class, not to be spoken in public,” said Shinsho Miyara, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of the Ryukyus and chairman of the Ryukyu Heritage Language Society.
Such efforts haven’t amounted to much, partly because the Okinawan prefectural government isn’t fully on board.
There’s a “welcome” sign in Okinawan at the islands’ main airport, but it’s misspelled: “mensoore” instead of “mensooree.” The islands now have one day annually — Sept. 18 — designated to promote the local languages, but nothing much is done to promote them the rest of the year.
Miyara said it is crucial to try to save the languages. “We need this to rebuild our identity and our confidence and to promote our culture,” he said. He pointed out that local schools teach Japanese language and history but not Okinawan.
“It’s as if we were blindfolded in 1879 when Okinawa became part of Japan,” Miyara said. “We need to remove the blindfolds. Language can be the basic foundation for our future.”
Patrick Heinrich, a Ryukyu language specialist who teaches in Italy, says he’s “slightly optimistic but not that optimistic,” that Okinawan can be saved. He is doubtful about the other five languages.
“Of course, endangered languages need government support, but it’s not sufficient to teach them at school,” Heinrich said. “Ultimately, people have to start to use these languages again in situations where it’s natural to use them. But to get people to really speak again, that’s not so easy.”
Encouraging Okinawan could also have economic benefits. Tourism is one of Okinawa’s main industries, and promoting local products using local languages could boost their attraction, analysts say.
All around the main island, restaurants play up the local cuisine, which includes a bitter gourd called goya and a bright purple sweet potato that’s turned into butter and ice cream, among other things. (Spam seems to be in nearly every dish, another legacy of the American occupation.)
But not everyone supports the effort to save the languages. Shigehisa Karimata, a linguistics professor at the University of the Ryukyus, says that the indigenous tongues are dialects, not languages in their own right, and that because the onetime kingdom is part of Japan, its languages should be considered Japanese.
“This abstract idea of an ‘Okinawa identity’ doesn’t really exist,” he said, contending that Okinawa is a collection of diverse cultures. “It’s the same way as not all Japanese is the same. It depends on where you are from.”
The young people in Fija’s class see it differently.
“If we, the young generation, lose interest in this language and culture,” said Samuel Kinjo, a 20-year-old from Naha, “then it will become just another part of a great big country called Japan.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.