Portraits of Language Use in Native America: Complicating Language Shift, Promoting Indigenous Rights

Teresa L. McCarty

Arizona State University, USA

WS162: Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights

Language shift is occurring at an escalating pace in Native American communities, with only 20 of 175 languages still acquired as first languages by children. Without rapid and effective intervention, none of these languages is likely to survive as a child language beyond the next 30 to 50 years. Moreover, even as more Native children enter school speaking English as a primary or only language, they often speak a “Nativized” variety, leading them to be stigmatized and placed in remedial tracks. Thus, the shift from the Native language to English does not in itself ensure that these students will acquire academic English or fare better in school. While the more general causes of language shift have been well studied, little is known of how language shift is experienced by children and influences their learning in and out of school. This lack of information contributes significantly to ongoing education inequities, and to challenges faced by Native American communities in maintaining and revitalizing their heritage languages. This paper provides a view of language shift “on the ground,” as experienced by Native American youth across a range of school-community settings. Drawing on data from a large-scale, comparative study of Native American language shift and retention in the U.S. Southwest, the study shows that the micro and macro environments in which children’s language proficiencies are developed and language practices and choices are enacted are much more rich, varied, and contentious than the notion of “shift,” with its unidirectional connotations, suggests. The paper begins with an overview of the status of Native American languages. I then provide background on the research approach and methodology. Data included 230 in-depth, ethnographic interviews with Native youth, educators, parents, and elders; 600 sociolinguistic questionnaires; hundreds of hours of observation of language use and teaching; and quantitative indicators of youth language proficiencies. The analysis focuses on three key areas of the research: contemporary language use patterns in participants’ communities and homes, youths’ multiple language proficiencies, and language attitudes and ideologies. Together, these data reveal multifaceted portraits of language shift across a continuum of early- to late-shift settings. The implications of these findings for Indigenous/minority-language maintenance and linguistic and educational rights are discussed.

Session: Themed Panel (part 2)
Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 06