Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival Presents Breath of Life Workshops

ACTA - Posted on 10 May 2010

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By Dr. Leanne Hinton, Professor Emerita, UC Berkeley

In California, where once close to a hundred indigenous languages were spoken, now close to half of them have no living speakers left at all, and most of the rest have just a few.  The Breath of Life, Silent No More Language Workshop for California Indians (originally named the Lonely Hearts Language Club) was designed specifically for people who have no speakers to learn their language from.  If there are no speakers, then you must hope that someone recorded your language or wrote it down, because then it can still be revived.  There are a number of languages around the world that have been brought back into use by learning from documentation – Wampanoag and Miami are two examples from around the United States, and Cornish in the United Kingdom.  And here in California, languages like Esselen, Mutsun, Muwekma, Barbareño Chumash, Tongva, and lots of others are all being increasingly brought back into use from a starting point of zero speakers!

The University of California at Berkeley has a set of archives and libraries that together comprise the largest collections of materials on California languages that can be found anywhere.  Every other year for a week, the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival produces the Breath of Life Workshop, where some 50 Native Californians come to learn how to find materials on their languages, and learn enough about linguistics to start using those materials for their own use in language learning, teaching, or use.  From the documentation, people may learn prayers or songs or stories.  Participants have used the documentation to make dictionaries, language lessons and phrasebooks.  They have learned enough from the materials to make their own songs, or write poetry.  They might focus on useful phrases that they can use every day at home or around the community.  They might find photos of their own ancestors, or words and stories and family histories that their relatives told to linguists.

The workshop will be held this year, on June 6-12, 2010.  Participants stay in the dorms on the UC campus.  In the mornings are workshops on linguistics and other topics, and afternoons involve tours or work in the archives.  It’s an intense week – homework every night, and presentations on your language to the group on the last day. Faculty and grad students from Berkeley and elsewhere serve as mentors to the participants, to help them learn how to read and understand the materials on their languages, and help develop the projects with the participants.  Intense, and yet a wonderful time of learning, gaining new friends among fellow language lovers, and beginning the process of bringing language away from the silence of the page and back into the air!

For more information about the Breath of Life, Silent No More Workshop or the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, please visit their website.

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