Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 90-93
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As a result of his own experience as a student and teacher, Luther Standing Bear understood that enforced English-only education in turn-of-the-century American Indian schools was robbing Native communities of their linguistic and cultural heritage. He also understood that language preservation could succeed only through a grassroots movement:
The language of a people is part of their history. Today we should be perpetuating history instead of destroying it, and this can only be effectively done by allowing and encouraging the young to keep it alive. A language, unused, embalmed, and reposing only in a book, is a dead language. Only the people themselves, and never the scholars, can nourish it into life.
In How to Keep Your Language Alive, Leanne Hinton, Matt Vera, and Nancy Steele offer a systematic way for language communities to cultivate and maintain their own heritage tongues. In California, where there are fifty endangered indigenous languages—most spoken by fewer than a dozen elder speakers—the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program pairs an elder speaker with a member of the community who wants to learn the language. Ideally, language learning is perpetuated when one apprentice who has been through the program teaches another. Administered by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS), this "mentored learning approach" is designed primarily for people who have access to a speaker if not to a formal language classroom (xiii). The authors also offer recommendations for establishing community and intertribal programs and extend their approach to college classrooms. The manual is written with remarkably little linguistic jargon, making it an accessible guide for both teachers and learners.
The teaching and learning described in this book takes place through an immersion approach, with the team members committing themselves to spending at least ten hours a week together and speaking chiefly in the target language. The approach is derived largely from Stephen Krashen's "input hypothesis," that states language is learned when it is spoken in the context of actions that make general meaning clear, and from the "total physical response" model, which combines language with whole body movement so that the learner focuses not on the words themselves but on the overall message. Throughout the book, the authors provide specific examples of language activities for the teacher and learner. With the understanding that the elder teacher may not be a trained language instructor, the master-apprentice model places the responsibility for guiding the learning process on the apprentice. Thus, for example, the learner regularly asks the teacher for words and phrases the learner needs to know.
At the end of the book, the authors acknowledge the problems inherent in their program: the failure of teams to remain immersed in the language, the difficulty of arranging schedules to accommodate at least ten hours of language learning a week, and the reluctance to push forward to a more advanced level when a plateau is reached. However, [End Page 91] they offer practical suggestions to overcome each of these stumbling blocks.
In promoting this method, linguists Hinton, Vera, and Steele debunk several myths of language learning, for example, the notions that grammar lessons and translation are essential in order to teach language and that adults cannot learn new languages well. Instead they emphasize several principles drawn from second language acquisition theories: communication can take place without recourse to English because nonverbal actions and activities facilitate comprehension; comprehension precedes the ability to articulate meaning; the grammar of a language can be learned unconsciously, through listening and speaking; and, since language is also culture, it can be learned through practicing customs and appropriate behaviors. The authors also stress the need for patience in the process, given that a learner may "have to hear and practice a word twenty times in...