Every two weeks, a language dies. What that little fact ultimately means is a mystery. Given that language is the verbal expression of a world view, “the dress of thought,” as Samuel Johnson once said, most linguists agree that with every lost language the human understanding of the world is cheapened. But, questions abound.
When a language dies, is something irreplaceable lost? Does it mean the death of a culture or the death of a people? Or is it possible that cultural aspects can be translated into the new dominant local language?
Rose-Marie Lujan of the Cultural Education Committee at the Taos Pueblo Board of Education has no doubt that the loss of the Tiwa language will cause a great suffering among the people of Taos Pueblo. “Our language is slowly going to sleep. We have to do something now,” she says.
On June 28, 2012, Lujan and others hosted the Tiwa Language Festival for tribal members in the Red Willow Center at Taos Pueblo. The event was organized carnival style with a series of booths from tribal programs such as the Environment Department. Each booth ran a language “game” like a pine-cone toss into animal picture baskets. The player had to name the animal in Tiwa to get a prize. Another booth had balloons to help teach the names of colors in Tiwa. “What we wanted to show,” Lujan said “is that language has a purpose and that it can be fun.”
Tiwa is a member of the Tanoan-Kiowa language family. The language group includes Tiwa, Tewa, Towa and, interestingly, the language of the culturally distinct Great Plains people, the Kiowa. The southern Tiwa dialect is spoken at Isleta and Sandia Pueblo, while the northern Tiwa dialect is spoken at Taos and Picuris pueblos.
About 7,000 unique languages are spoken around the world. But in 2012 the Foundation for Endangered Languages estimated that some 1,000 of those languages are spoken by only a small number of individuals. An unwritten, highly localized language, Tiwa is one of those held by but a few.
“In 2011, we did a language survey that showed that fluency in our language ends at about 35 years old. The youth simply don’t know it,” Lujan said.
Funded by a grant from the New Mexico Education Department, the purpose of the Tiwa Language Program is to bring Tiwa back into the Taos Pueblo school and to revise its use.
The Language Fair was part of that move, meant to show tribal members that someone was working on this issue. The plan is for a Language Fair at Red Willow about every six months. It is, however, only open to enrolled tribal members. Taos Pueblo does not formally encourage persons outside the tribe to learn their language.
The Cultural Education Committee hopes to get the Tiwa Program into Head Start this fall. They are preparing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the tribal government and the school system to get the program in place. Then, they will have to train the teachers.
“What we want are two speakers with the kids at all times so that they can hear it in active use,” Lujan said. “The language needs to be used in context. The other important thing is that the language needs to be taught using compassion and love and respect for the child. We have to be careful that the learner doesn’t feel overwhelmed or shamed and that they shut down.”
Lujan added,“Times have changed and the dynamics of the family have changed. Tiwa is not being passed down within the family. We aren’t going backwards. We have to teach in the way the world is going now, in the context of daily life. We have to remain relevant.”
A number of North American tribes have set in place successful programs for preserving their languages. Programs range from multi-year immersion programs to quarterly hunting and fishing trips with elders to computer-based online programs. Successful programs all demonstrate the need to link language and culture, the need for written teaching materials, and the need for community support and parental involvement. A number of researchers suggest that successful programs can fight gang activity, alcohol and drug abuse, and the high dropout rates seen in many indigenous communities.
Funding for the first phase of the Tiwa program ran out June 30. Lujan and others are working to keep the ball rolling, completing the memorandum for the governing bodies, rounding up school administration support and pursuing the next round of financial support.
“Our language imparts our values,” Lujan said. “Without our language it is hard to tie the values to the individual and to the important things in life. Teaching our language helps us teach responsibility.”