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Learning Native Languages

Learning any language is hard but learning a Native language has its own challenges that specifically make language learning in general more difficult. What I am saying here is that, regardless of the complexity of the language, it will be made more difficult to learn for reasons outside of the language itself. What are some of the challenges and general advice for learning your Native language?

This is number one for me: the ability to find written or audio content that is of interest to me. For example, reading about how the hometown baseball team did last night or reading some documentation about some esoteric programing language. We don’t come across these things as we would in other prominent languages. Websites even provide localization in order for you to read content in your desired language, not so much for Native languages. Although we desire to learn our languages fluently, it is common to lose interest because we don’t connect with the things we are learning. As an adult, our understanding of the world and how we interact with it has been solidified, unlike with a child. We interact and engage with it based on our personality, our interests. If someone is technically minded, or creatively minded, they will have a desire to find content like that. Lack of content leads to lack of interest, and lack of interest leads to disinterest. Acknowledging this as a language speaker, and learner, hopefully reframes your learning experience. It’s not your fault that your interests wanes, but it is if it persists. It’s not enough to throw up the hands and say, language learning is not for me, it’s instead a time to pull up your sleeves and get to work creating a learning curriculum that works for you, that interests you, and that helps you learn the language long-term.

This is obvious. Native languages in the US are on the decline. After 500 years of genocidal practices: war, removal, boarding schools, termination, and relocation, it’s incredible to think many of our languages are still spoken. Of course, without available content, community connections, or close relationships with speakers, access to fluent speakers can be difficult. This is where written content can serve as a buffer before you can get access to a fluent speaker. Although, not every community accepts writing the language down, for those that do it’s an invaluable resource. There might also be recordings at local colleges and universities. Exhaust all avenues of finding audio/written content as best you can even when you do have speakers to talk to. If you can talk to them each and every day, great, if not then outside study is critical to language acquisition.

Don’t get stuck in the endless “basics” loop. For all the work we do in our communities and even tribal governments themselves, it’s frustrating to not have available more advanced classes and conversations in the target language. It’s as though we fear being able to actually speak the language. Becoming fluent means having long running conversations and storytelling. You won’t get there regurgitating “hello, how are you?” You need to challenge yourself and that might mean not attending for the nth time the language basics class. Go beyond the basics, start thinking in complex ways in the language, even if you aren’t speaking it, because as long as you use the language’s building blocks to construct sentences, then you are starting to make those important, and hopefully permanent, connections in your mind.

We need to get really good at the fundamentals. Not the kind of content you get from your basics course. I am referring to constructs in your language that are the foundations of thinking and communicating: tenses (how to think in terms of time), conjugations (how to think in terms of people), pronouns/direct objects/indirect objects (how to think in terms of actions). These are the foundational constructs of sentences and although they seem simple, they are full of nuance. In addition, to foundational concepts, there are foundational words and ways of saying things. All of these things, grammar and vocabulary, are easily forgotten. That’s part of learning. The way to improve is to allow yourself to forget and push yourself to re-learn it over and over again until it becomes second nature. Engraining these concepts aren’t something you need to do, they are something you have to do. From the basics, all other things become that much easier to learn and acquire and then use. Hopefully in time, you take what you’ve learned and starting writing down those cool stories you want to hear/read.

In the beginning of learning your language, translation will be a crutch, but it should only be a crutch. Even though translation is helpful, it can lead to over simplification of the language and the dreaded “speaking our language is just a translation of English.” This is why learning the fundamentals is so critical, because a lot of concepts are built into them, and ways of thinking can be created out of them. I would suggest doing translation for a bit as you get started but overtime you need to really dig into the meaning of words and how they are used, not just what they mean. For example, in Mvskoke we have a tense that is used to roughly translate to the “remote past.” However, in working with speakers it can also be used in situations when you don’t know exactly when something happened. It’s a nice little utility for when you know it was in the past but can’t specify based on whether it was a day, week, month, or year ago. If I didn’t ask speakers these questions, then it might have been lost on me how to actually speak in a culturally relevant way. These nuances of the language are what makes it what it is and they are littered throughout the language. Take time to dig deep into each and every word.

Not every speaker makes a good teacher. You sometimes learn this the hard way or you might not have any other choice, but consider working with speakers who are willing to speak/teach you in a way that you feel comfortable with. I spent many years working with a speaker that knew a ton but wasn’t always willing to speak with me in the language. I remain forever grateful for what he taught me, I just also needed a mentor that would further my growth. Work with speakers as best you can, gift them if you can for their time, their knowledge is invaluable. However, recognize if the relationship is not a good fit for your growth. It’s not so much about not learning from them, of course you can still dedicate time, it’s more so about finding the right mentor and you never know, there might be someone out there that is a better fit for your language development.

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