What exactly are language preservationists preserving when they preserve an endangered language? Cultures with their own language have staying power, preserving human cultural diversity and a particular way of looking at the world.
Language preservationists concentrate on those languages most imperiled. These are the languages spoken in cultures already experiencing massive disruption from contact with the global market, to the point where these people no longer use their native language first. The language of the dominant society has replaced it as the first choice of fluent speakers of the native language.
Through documentation and instruction, the revivalists have been able to keep these languages alive in classrooms. So the language becomes a carrier of classroom culture only. Keeping a language alive in the kitchen and the market is much harder than in the schoolhouse.
With that in mind, Hopi language specialists, the Hopi Nation and First Things First (FTF), a language preservation group, are working to revive Hopi as the first language children learn in their homes.
The Hopi are old hands at resisting the implacable inroads of the one market. For five centuries they have preserved the Hopi Way against conquest and acculturation. But in the last few years, English is spoken in Hopi homes more than Hopi lavayi. So a new pilot language preservation program, the Hopi Lavayi Nest Model Program, aims to make Hopi kids learn Hopi first.
The goal is to connect children in Hopi communities to their native language and culture in the critical early years before age five. It is essential to reviving the language to bring Hopi back into the home, where a child is first introduced to language.
As English becomes the primary language among the Hopi, studies have shown that the Hopi language, the tribe’s oral history and its cultural identity are increasingly at risk.
In surveys, respondents said that Hopi language loss is happening fast but that the Hopi still know Lavayi. If the language is to have staying power, it is essential that Hopi be spoken to young children everywhere, starting in the home, say researchers.
Language preservation efforts are also good for the kids’ other studies, too. “Research shows that literacy skills learned in a child’s first language are later transferred into the dominant language, and children who speak more than one language perform better in school,” says FTF’s Cynthia Pardo. “The foundation of early learning begins in early childhood. Rich early language experiences do more than teach words, they instill an excitement for learning. Children without early positive language experiences have more to learn when they get to school – and fewer skills to enable that learning.”
A PowerPoint on the effort by Project Director Dr. LaVerne Jeanne describes in detail this interesting and ambitious effort by FTF to keep Hopi first.
“Hopi lavayi is rooted in our culture as a people. If we lose our language, there will no longer be Hopi sinom. Our language defines who we are spiritually,” explained Anita Poleahla, president and CEO of Mesa Media, Inc. “If we no longer are able to speak Hopi lavayi then we will never really understand the full meaning of what our Hopi ceremonies mean, even if we participate … Hopi lavayi is just not a language; it is a teaching tool of life, it is our life.”
Writing about this, I remember a day thirty years ago, bouncing along on the First Mesa, dust billowing out behind us, hot wind coming through the truck window, wicking me away, the edge between honey rock and turquoise sky sharp as a buzz saw. I wish I was there back then right now. Why can we never go back? Sigh.
Anyway, Hopi is a beautiful language to listen to. I don’t think we’ve ever had a chance to translate it, much as I would love to. Here’s Hopi elder Radford Quamahongnewa on the Hopi way (in Hopi).
And here is Quamahongnewa on the Hopi way (in English).