(Part I is just over this way…)
Like I mentioned in my previous post, the Master-Apprentice Program was first developed for the indigenous languages of California. To begin her presentation, Dr. Leanne Hinton started by pointing out that the oppression that Gaelic in Nova Scotia has faced is in fact common to a great many heritage languages around the world, including those of California’s indigenous people. Linguists are painfully aware of this, but it’s hard for a lot of people to really wrap their heads around the fact that at least half of the world’s languages are in a simlar situation. As Dr. Hinton said, there are approximately 7000 languages in the world, and only 200 countries. When you think that countries generally tend to support only one or two “official” languages, usually the language(s) of the majority of people living there, it makes you think about how little support is out there for the minority languages of the world.
There are a lot of reasons why these languages suffer, and most of the time I would say there isn’t just one reason. Factors such as colonization, genocide, political or economic takeover and of course, the education system obviously play a big role, and these factors have a huge impact on speaker attitudes toward their own language. Once the speakers of a language start to believe that another lanuguage (such as English, for example) would be more beneficial to them, either in terms of finding work, or simply just not being teased at school for sounding funny, they will start the shift to the majority language. And the moment that speakers stop teaching their mother tongue to their children is the first nail in the coffin.
On the one hand, it’s really sad that so many languages are going through this, but on the other hand, it’s nice that there is a lot being done to revitalize these languages now. Dr. Hinton spoke of the “missing generation”, the younger generation who are growing up without their heritage language and are starting to realize just what is at stake. Especially for Nova Scotia Gaelic, this generation is what will help grow the language by learning from the elders and native speakers, and they will be the ones to pass the language on to future generations.
One of the main goals of language revitalization is to get the language back in use, to get people speaking the language. Something that Dr. Hinton said that has stuck with me is that, as valuable and important as documenting a language is to the process of revitalizing a language, new speakers are what save a language in the long term. (I do think that the documentation of a language is very important — the trick is to be both documenting and training new speakers at the same time, not sacrificing one for the other.)
This is where the Master-Apprentice approach comes in – it is a practical way of training new speakers of the language in a way that will help them become fluent enough to use the language and share it with others and maybe even start teaching the language themselves.
By spending time with a native speaker doing normal, daily activities, the apprentices get a chance to hear the language being used in a natural way and learn to actually have a conversation in the language, rather than simply studying and memorizing verb forms. Classroom apporaches to language learning tend to focus on reading and writing, and usually they teach the language through English, so students end up learning about the language, instead of learning to use the language. Also, schools generally don’t make use of elders or native speakers in their lessons either, and there are so many aspects of culture that never make it into the classroom either. So by learning a heritage language with the help of an elder or native speaker, a learner has the chance to add that extra, wonderful, layer of depth to their language. I’m not suggesting (and I don’t think Dr. Hinton was either) that typical formal school language classes should be abandoned or rejected, but they can certainly be enhanced with the addition of more of the cultural elements that are available.
The other great thing about the Mentor-Apprentice approach is that it is for the most part informal, relaxed, and relatively unstructured, making it much easier to participate for both the mentor and the apprentice.
Thus concludes Part II…