Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sleep on it

Last Fall I hunted a little Mandarin. There was a class on Chinese language, culture, and food for homeschoolers that met for an hour each week. The instructor, a woman from Taiwan, told me she enjoyed the food and culture part the most, and wasn't sure how to teach her language.

I dropped in on a couple classes to see if I could help. I hunted her language with the kids in the class. I was there for 2 classes, and spent about 20 minutes each time on language.

I didn't have an opportunity to use that bit of Mandarin for a while. A few months later I got the urge to run through those conversations again. But I couldn't remember the words. I tried SIGNING to trigger the memory, but it didn't help. The words didn't come. I shrugged and let it go.

The next morning I found the words again. The conversations came easily.

I'm used to thinking of SLEEP ON IT as applying directly to a learning situation. You learn something, you sleep that night, and the next day you know it better.

But in this case, it was months later. It's funny how memory works - something I thought was gone was still there. It just needed a trigger and a night's sleep.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Elwha dam removal and language revitalization

I am far from being an expert on the Elwha, so please expect that I'm getting some stuff wrong here, and be patient with me.

The largest community of Klallam people is the Lower Elwha Tribe, near Port Angeles, WA. Their language is critically endangered. There are 2 fluent elders, who were sent to white schools and punished when they spoke their language (a tragically familiar story).

The Elwha river was dammed 100 years ago to generate electricity. They have started dismantling the dams, the largest such project ever.

I would like to help with the Klallam language, but sometimes I wonder if there's hope. When I first started learning about endangered language revitalization, there were 4 elder speakers, but 2 have died since. Those speakers have lived in English most of their lives. They may be completely fluent but not ACTFL Superior. With a language in such a delicate state, is it even possible to bring it back?  I wonder if it's even worth trying, as I sink in to despair.

My wife pointed out a parallel with the dam removal project. Congress approved funding in 1992, but they are still 2 years away from fully removing the dams. Even after that, it will take a long time for salmon to repopulate the upper Elwha, and it seems impossible for fish to return to the populations of a century ago. And yet it is worth doing.

If it's worth restoring the Elwha, then it's worth restoring the Klallam language. It may never be what it was, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

I'm not giving up.
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