Spence Rescues California's Indigenous Languages

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani – Scholars and indigenous communities are trying to rescue California’s linguistic heritage. On March 6, 2018, in a talk titled "California's Indigenous Languages: Documentation, Archives, and Revitalization," Justin Spence discussed the challenges in keeping Native American languages alive.

Justin Spence, assistant professor of Native American studies at UC Davis, is dedicated to using his background in linguistics to help indigenous communities reclaim their heritage through language revitalization. Revitalization efforts seek not only to stop or reverse a language's decline, but also to help revive extinct languages.

Language revitalization is criticized as ineffective or irrational by those that deem language death as part of a natural and inevitable process of improved communication. Nonetheless, language is more than just a communication tool. According to Spence, "For contemporary native people in California, language is part of a broader assertion for presence in today's world."

California's endangered languages

Pre-Columbian California, thanks to its temperate climate and accessible food sources, boasted the highest population density north of Mesoamerica. Conservative estimates indicate that about 80 to 90 completely different languages were spoken in the region. "It's an incredibly diverse group of languages," affirmed Spence.

Unfortunately, approximately 90% of California's indigenous languages were lost due to the conquest and the colonization of the region. Nowadays, remaining languages are for the most part highly endangered, spoken mostly by the elderly, with no clear prospects for transgenerational transfer. 

A similar situation occurs all across North America, where numerous indigenous languages have ceased being acquired by children since the mid-twentieth century. "I want to leave you with the idea that this is a very palpable history among many communities," Spence said.

Overcoming language discrimination

Since the nineteenth century, indigenous Californians faced a constant oppression against their way of life. One form of language eradication occurred through the outright killing of native peoples. A U.S. Indian Agent's letter from 1850 mentions the "inhuman massacre" against the tribes in California, "for real or supposed injuries."

"There are as many different ways of writing the Hupa language as there are Hupa language researchers."—Justin Spence


Language eradication also occurred through education, with Amerindian children between the ages of six and fourteen forcibly taken from their tribes and placed in boarding schools. In these facilities, teachers forced schoolchildren to wear western clothing and cut their hair. The children also received harsh beatings if they spoke any language other than English. Many grew up resenting their native cultures, associating them with inferiority and punishment.

Native American organizations supporting language revitalization seek the program to help heal individuals and communities hurt by the aforementioned oppressive practices. One such organization, Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS), has worked since 1992 to strengthen and revive Native American languages. 

Revitalization and revival

AICLS promotes language revitalization through the Master-Apprentice Program, which allows language learners to work with a fluent speaker to acquire conversational proficiency. The one-on-one immersion allows learners to self-direct their language acquisition. After acquiring sufficient mastery over the language, learners can then also become teachers of it.

Another program promoted by the AICLS is the "Breath of Life" workshop that brings together people interested in using archival materials to help revive languages that no longer have fluent speakers. Spence collaborates in this workshop, searching through "language documentation" to find published or unpublished material. Data used includes field notes, journals, grammar books, dictionaries, and audio recordings that can help revive a dead language. 

The challenge of language rescue efforts

Finding language documentation is not easy. Materials, whether published or unpublished, might be expensive to acquire. If they reside in archives or libraries, gaining access may require university accounts or special permissions. Sometimes researchers also need to follow trails to find data scattered globally, such as is the case with the field notes of American ethnologist Pliny Earle Goddard. "In practice, a lot of what I spend my time doing is going to archives, looking at the catalogues, scouring trying to find these materials," said Spence.

Once the documentation is acquired, applying it to learn a language can be even more difficult. Recordings might have been badly kept, creating a raspy sound that could render them entirely unintelligible. Handwriting from notes can also be illegible or written in ways that modern scholars might fully understand. "There are as many different ways of writing the Hupa language as there are Hupa language researchers," Spence remarked. 

Spence argued that the difficulty in interpreting language documentation is also due to the material being created by linguists, for linguists. "They don't have in mind a population of people who are trying to learn a language," he added, "The challenge is in turning these documents to something people can speak." 

Embracing change

Language that is revived or revitalized through documentation will never be the same as that spoken by people in the past. This causes criticism from skeptic scholars and even purists within indigenous communities, who consider that their language is not the same as that being reconstructed. 

Nonetheless, Spence and others who defend language revitalization not only find in their job a greater social purpose for cultural empowerment, but they also find justification in that all languages are constantly evolving over the course of time. For example, nowadays we do not speak English in the same way as Shakespeare spoke it during the sixteenth century.

"Languages do change,” Spence concluded, “and that's okay."

This event was sponsored by the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas.

 Learn more about Justin Spence.