Endangered languages challenge the smugness of the powerful

What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don't?
What can we learn from them? What do they know that we don’t?

With assimilation of language comes assimilation of culture, and as the language is lost, so is the culture. The longer we can put off assimilation of language, the more time we have to learn from the culture that accompanies that language. As speakers of a majority language, I must work to preserve a way of thinking and viewing the world that is different from mine.

In a recent article, one of my favorite language-writers, Michael Erard, described the tropes journalists use when writing about dying languages. Journalists make a kind of heart-breaking spectacle so we can watch these helpless languages go the way of the dodo.

I noticed that there is no call to action. While many people know about these sad stories, these stories offer nothing for readers to do. “Linguists” are depicted as tromping out into jungles and steppes to record the last gasps of the language “for posterity.” They are the amber that traps the last member of the species for future scientists to observe.

So what? Why care about dying languages?

Because you’re too smug.
Cultural challenge

Certifying immigrant language teachers

somali language lessons
Somali Language Lessons (Photo credit: sarah sosiak)

Yesterday I began forming my team (which I began to talk about in this post).  I met with many active folks in Somali community and we discussed what sort of language education we thought the community needed.  I realized that the Somali community is excited about language classes for the sake of their children.  (I need to work more on the non-Somali communities.)  Yet Somali language education in the Twin Cities is, according to one Somali elder teacher, in need of CPR.  One problem we have is finding certified teachers: teachers with 1) expert knowledge of Somali language, 2) experience with pedagogy, and 3) teaching certification.

Teaching Somali well requires strong, deep Somali language skills; yet teaching certification requires taking many courses and passing a test in English.  Let’s say you find a potential language teacher who writes poetry, speaks eloquently at community events, and is beloved by children.  But she does not speak English beyond what she needs to ride the bus.  Because of how current law is written, she cannot teach in a public school because she cannot pass a teacher’s exam.

We have a very narrow pool for potential Somali language teachers.  At the moment, we have to pass over qualified monolingual language teachers in favor of bilingual certified teachers.  This cannot produce the best results.

Significantly, the Navajo (or Diné) confronted this problem in Arizona and found a solution, as we can read in this article.  A similar program that currently exists in the state of New Mexico served as precedent for it.  (The Navajo are still working to get an agreement with Utah.)  The assessment tests for language ability, cultural knowledge, and–interestingly–character.  Tribal colleges will administer the test.

I would love to develop a program for Somali language teachers in Minnesota because it will help us find the most qualified teachers, who may or may not know English.  Such a certification process will dignify the knowledge that Somali-speakers possess.  I hope that one day this process could help fast-track teachers of languages when new waves of immigrants and refugees come to Minnesota.

What do you think?  Should immigrant communities be able to work around the standard certification process to qualify their own teachers?  If so, what should this process look like, ideally?  If not, what other ways can we provide quality language education to students?