Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

Have you ever wondered what the most difficult language in the world to learn is? The answer to that question is, it depends. Languages vary in difficulty depending on your first language.

Most Indigenous children in the United States speak English as their first language. Many Indigenous languages are verb-based and polysynthetic, which makes them very different from English. There are wider phonetic and structural differences between English and Indigenous languages versus learning a second language like French, Spanish, German, etc. If we are not exposed to our Native language before the age of 12, our brain then becomes hardwired for English patterns, intonations, and rules, which can make it even more difficult to grasp concepts in indigenous languages.

Endangered languages often lack learning resources or support materials. Polyglots (people who know many languages) are able to learn many languages so quickly because they usually learn languages that have an abundance of resources that pique their interest. Public school teachers can go to websites like Teachers Pay Teachers (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/) or order children’s books online. However, a Native language immersion school teacher would need to develop these materials from scratch. Typically, resources that are available in endangered languages are things like papers, word lists, and audio recordings that heavily rely on the learner to be able to figure it out for themselves. If a brand-new learner was to try and self-learn, they would need to depend on these materials as well as learn how to read proficiently first.

I could move to Germany right now and return a year from now as a fluent German speaker through simply immersing myself in the language and culture. I have yet to see that as an option for any endangered language learner. There are short opportunities that may be available like immersion camps or through specific programs like master-apprentice programs, but nothing that could replicate the experience of an entire community using the Indigenous language as the primary language. Accessibility to classes/language speakers is also a challenge as there are not enough resources to have language programs available in every community or someone’s life circumstances does not allow for them to be within proximity to classes or speakers

Many of our communities are struggling with social ills such as addictions, suicide rates, low academic achievement, poverty, etc. It is hard to add language learning to your list of things to do when you are barely getting by financially or emotionally. It is also difficult to get the resources needed to support language revitalization when there are other concerns that may take precedence. Although language and culture are proven to address almost all social ills found in our communities, a lot of community outreach and education is necessary to get buy-in from tribal leadership and the community as a whole.

Endangered language learners and teachers have a lot of unique challenges to overcome. Many wear multiple hats simultaneously as teacher and learner, material developer, maintenance/janitorial, laborer, etc. In understanding the unique challenges, perhaps finding solutions will also come a little easier.