Linguist keeping language, culture of Pacific Northwest tribes alive

Thursday, September 26, 2002

In some elementary schools on the north shore of Washington states western peninsula, students use computer games to learn another language. They hear a word and try to match a symbol on the screen to that word while the computer keeps score. They also click on a letter in the language to hear the sound of that letter.However, these children arent learning French, Spanish or another foreign language commonly taught in American schools. Instead, thanks to the research of University of North Texas linguist Dr. Timothy Montler, they're learning the native tongue of their ancestors Klallam, spoken by a Pacific Northwest Native American tribe.Montler, UNT professor of linguistics in the English department, has been working for 10 years to preserve the language of the Klallam, who reside on three reservations in Washington along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and one reservation across the strait on Vancouver Island. He is also working to preserve Saanich, the language of the Salish tribe living in British Columbia on Vancouver Island near Victoria. In addition, he is working with Ivy Doak, UNT research assistant professor of English, to preserve Coeur dAlene, the native language of tribes residing in Northern Idaho. His work has been funded by grants from the National Park Service, the Administration for Native Americans and the National Science Foundation.Montler says in each tribe, only a few members who are in their 80's or older still speak the tribal language as a first language. "Until not too long ago, there was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to wipe out the languages of Native American tribes," he says. "Many elders attended government-run boarding schools, where they were humiliated and beaten for speaking their native languages. This generation didnt teach their children or grandchildren their native language because they didnt want them to suffer the same humiliation."The Native American Indians Act, signed by President George Bush in October 1990, reversed the U.S. governments historical policy to suppress Native American languages. A few years later, under the Clinton administration, the government provided grants to tribes for language preservation. After the Klallam tribe received a grant from the National Park Service for historic preservation of its language, tribal elders contacted Montler, who had previously co-published a dictionary of the language of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Texas with a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant. The Klallams have received other language preservation grants under the Native American Indians Act.Montler says he had been interested in Native American languages only for their phonetic and grammatical complexity."Coeur d'Alene alone has four distinct sounds produced in the throat more than in most languages," he says. "While I was earning my doctoral degree in linguistics, I was a research assistant to a professor, and I was sent to the Klallam reservations to collect linguistic data for him."Working with the tribal members made Montler realize the obligation of preserving their language."It hits you that this language will be gone and faded from memory once the few native speakers of it are gone," he says.Montler travels to the reservations every summer. He gathers information from the tribes native speakers to create dictionaries, reference guides, computer games and curriculum materials for teaching Klallam and Coeur dAlene. He says Saanich and Klallam are as closely related as Spanish and Portuguese."If you know one language, you can usually learn the other very quickly," he says.These languages have several distinguishing characteristics, include the word order in sentences."The main verb always comes first," Montler says. "We would say John saw Mary in English. In Klallam and Saanich, the order is Saw John Mary."Coeur d'Alene is only distantly related to Klallam and Saanich, he says."It's like the difference between English and Russian," he says.Montler and Doak plan to create two dictionaries for Coeur dAlene one a technical dictionary for use by scholars and advanced speakers of the language, and one a learners dictionary aimed at junior high and high school students. In addition to creating materials to teach the languages, Montler has applied for a research grant to produce a volume of Klallam folk tales.He notes that the best way to get good grammatical detail is to have the native speakers of a language tell a story."I've gathered not just traditional Klallam folk tales and oral history stories, but also songs for different types of occasions, speeches and anecdotes. Listening to them, I heard words I would not have thought of gathering," he says.The Klallam tribe rewarded Montler for his work by giving him an honorary name the name of a storyteller who was the grandfather of a tribal elder.Montler says its rewarding to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the elders learning Klallam. "They are realizing how important it is to have a strong identity, and language is the most obvious emblem of social identity," he says.

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