Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director
Many methods and techniques are available to becoming a second language speaker of an endangered language. The most proven method is language acquisition through immersion. Children are very adept to picking up languages through exposure without need for language lessons. An ideal situation would be to have intergenerational immersion environments where Elders, adults, and children can all interact with one another in the language. Unfortunately, some language situations do not have the capabilities to implement these methods. If you are like many endangered language learners, and have to do a lot of learning on your own or have to learn language through study techniques, here is a sequence that may be helpful.
Starting with sounds may seem trivial or perhaps a waste of time, but there is some science behind this. First, there are 6,000 phonemes that exist across the entire world. One language has around 40, give or take. When a baby is born, they are what Dr. Patricia Kuhl calls “citizens of the world.” This means they can hear all the sounds of all the languages in the world. Around six months of age, the infant brain starts specializing in the language(s) the baby is exposed to in their environment. By the age of 12-18 months, the infant’s brain discards the ability to hear the sounds of other languages they are not exposed to. Evidence shows that the ability to discriminate sounds positively contributes to speech production later on. “Strong relationships were observed between infants’ early speech perception performance and their later language skills at 18 and 24 months” (Kuhl, Patricia K.). If an adult learner has had no previous exposure to the sounds of their language, or has had limited exposure, this is an important place to start.
It is also important to learn the writing system associated with these sounds and how to read the language from the beginning. The reason this is important is it allows you, as a learner, to take the learning into your own hands. Odds are, a lot of written documentation of your language exists and not a whole lot of audio. Learning all the nuances of an orthography or alphabet can take many years to perfect and fully understand.
From there, we learn how to name objects and people in our environment that are important to our everyday living and environment. This can be familial terms, household items, places we go, time of day, etc. All along the language journey we learn how to connect words to one another to make meaningful speech. Connectors for nouns would include: who, where, my, your, our, that, and, etc. You can also add in adjectives that describe nouns: small, plain, fury, color, etc.
Once we have a solid grasp of naming and describing people, places, and things, we can move forward in how those nouns act within our environment. The most basic verbs are command forms such as telling someone to sit, stand, run, etc. You can then build up to adding adjectives to that as well, such as run fast or walk slow. Again, we are still connecting words. For example, walk slow to the door and wait.
From there we begin to discuss who is doing the action: I eat, you ran, Tom waited. You can start learning about tenses at this point such as past, present, future. Some languages also allow for nouns to have tense, such as “my future house.” Here we can also start exploring adverbs such as quietly, below, later, barely, sometimes, etc.
Finally, learning how to conjugate sentences. When we acquire a language naturally, conjugation becomes an unconscious process. We intuitively know that a sentence like “him saw he” is not grammatically correct, and that the correct way to say that would be “He saw him,” even though he and him both refer to third person singular. Another example is “me told they” versus “I told them.” We also know sometimes verbs will change in tense, such as “I drank my water” versus “I drinked my water.” Conjugation involves utilizing the same verb while changing subject pronouns: I, you, he/she/it, we, you all, they; changing object pronouns: me, you, him/her/it, us, you all, them; while also changing tense. Depending on the language, this may be a more or less complicated process.
It is also important to note that utilizing social interaction is very important in any kind of learning. The more you can learn with or from others in an emotionally safe environment, the process of language learning will be quicker and more enjoyable. As mentioned before, immersion and other comprehensible input techniques are ideal for being a speaker of your language, but if you are in a situation where you do not have access to Fluent or Advanced Speakers, or geographic barriers exist, this should be helpful in mapping out a plan for proficiency.
Kuhl, Patricia K. “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education.” Mind, Brain and Education : the Official Journal of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164118.