New graduate program aims to keep languages from disappearing

By Joel Bahr, Berkeley News

In an effort to preserve and nurture languages at risk of disappearing — and serve a growing interest among students — Berkeley is offering a new designated emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization.

The program is an interdisciplinary collaboration of the Graduate School of Education, and the departments of Ethnic Studies and Linguistics.

“One of the unique aspects of the designated emphasis is that graduate students from any department can be admitted, and that is important for Native American students who might be enrolled in math or engineering programs but who still want to participate in the language vitality of their own tribal communities,” says Beth Piatote, an associate professor of Native American Studies, who is the program’s inaugural chair.

Sara Chase (left) at a Hupa language immersion camp with her language teacher, Verdena Parker, who is a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California and one of the last fluent speakers of the Hupa language. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SARA CHASE)The program equips students with the methods, histories, and goals of indigenous language revitalization in global contexts. Among the first cohort of students: Sara Chase, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education who works in Hupa; and Julia Nee, a PhD candidate in linguistics who works on Zapotec.

Chase has been involved in the revitalization of the Hupa language spoken by the Hoopa Valley Tribe, of which she is a member.

“I had hoped that my academic training in education, with a focus on language, literacy and culture, would have given me the time and space to be able to do my revitalization work,” says Chase. “However, I often had to do my language work in addition to and outside of my coursework.” And this is true for other students, she adds.

“The designated emphasis will give the institutional support as well as space to be able to focus on such important work that is often ignored or marginalized,” says Chase.

The designated emphasis (DE) also will help fill in knowledge gaps in the field of language revitalization.

“It’s not uncommon for a linguist to be working on an indigenous language and just be focused on documenting or describing it from a linguistic perspective,” says Zachary O’Hagan, a graduate linguistics student who helped design the DE. “Before the DE, there was no broader commitment to revitalizing the language or understanding the context of why it’s endangered in the first place.”

Berkeley has long been a leader in study of the indigenous languages of the Americas. The Linguistics Department has supported several academic endeavors, while the Native American Studies program, and the GSE conduct research addressing the historical and cultural contexts of language loss; educational policies related to language; and the epistemological and cultural values of indigenous languages.

Piatote noted that the designated emphasis brings a more holistic approach to language revitalization.

“It is difficult to contemplate the loss of entire lifeworlds of thought and the wealth of philosophical, linguistic, environmental, and medicinal knowledge that comes through these languages,” she says. “The problem is urgent, but not impossible.”

Editor’s note: This article has been reprinted with the permission of Berkeley News. A longer version of the article appeared July 27, 2018, in Berkeley News.