Revitalizing an Endangered Language – Part 4

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If an endangered language is an oral tradition, why should I worry about correct spelling?

The one thing that makes a spoken language understood easily between speakers and listeners is correct pronunciation. Pronunciation is learned and remembered most effectively by writing and reading spellings that show the sound of the word.

Among indigenous tribes around the world, most written versions of the language were created by missionaries who did not hear all the sounds of the language.

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Hymnal in Ottawa by Rev. Meeker, Kansas Historical Society

The resulting writing systems don’t necessarily show how to pronounce words accurately. Although Native speakers can often guess the pronunciation of most words written with inaccurate spellings, new students are at a disadvantage.

However, even fluent elders can eagerly adapt to a consistent and clear spelling system that accurately portrays the sound of the words. After being introduced to the Standard Orthography used in the New Lakota Dictionary, a Native-speaking Lakota language teacher said:

Now after I have learned the new spelling I can see how it makes all the difference. It is so much easier to read, for the students as well as for me.
– Delores Taken Alive

Ultimately, standardized spelling is encouraged for the sake of the new generation of speakers and for the survival of the language.

Does standardized spelling ignore local dialects and words?

Not at all. Even with standardized spelling, local dialects and words can and should be taught because they make the language richer, and honor the place and people who speak them.

“Thinking” in the language I’m studying seems very different from “thinking” in English. Do I have to learn the indigenous “thinking” before I can learn the language?

As you learn the language you learn the thinking – they go hand in hand.

Learning Lakota makes my thinking feel different! – More in Part 5.

The Language Conservancy provides technical and logistics assistance to indigenous tribes seeking to preserve and revitalize their traditional languages.

(c) 2014 The Language Conservancy

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