University of Oregon undergraduate Carson Viles was initially attracted to learning his native language because he valued how the language revealed insights and perspectives that drew him closer to the culture of his ancestral people, the Joshua and Sixes bands of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz from southern Oregon.
Yet like many of the diverse and myriad Native languages in the region, there are only a handful of fluent speakers of Dee-ni’—a set of coastal Athapaskan dialects which make up a language related to Najavo—and maybe a few dozen he knows of who can string sentences together, something which initially imbued Viles with a burdensome feeling.
“When you have a small speaking community, you can feel like you have this big responsibility that’s hard to cope with because there’s so much work to be done,” said Viles, an environmental studies major. “But then eventually I realized language learning could be a lifestyle, and not necessarily a career.”
Knowing that there are likely many other Native people devoted to language learning but not necessarily to earning a Ph.D. in linguistics, Viles is currently interviewing between 10 to 15 native language learners who are practicing and teaching themselves Dee-ni’ and other Northwest native languages at home.
His goal is to produce a senior thesis that documents the methods and techniques that are most effective, and find ways to improve at-home learning for speakers of all tribal languages.
“It’s about finding a way to learn the language while still being able to live the life you want to live,” he said. “But it turns out to be a win-win situation because the most effective way to learn is to use these at-home methods.”
Viles, 22, has taken language classes through the university’s Northwest Indian Language Institute, where Native students from throughout the U.S. study linguistics and develop language teaching materials. Because many of the institute’s students and staff are far from their tribal communities, they have supported each other in implementing immersive at-home language learning, and they can provide a good body of data for his research. The institute has provided an ideal atmosphere for young students, Viles said, as many of the mentors there are highly respected in their home communities and provide invaluable guidance and modeling for the next generations of language speakers.
“Just learning to say ‘Hello’ and ‘Good-bye’ in other languages can create a really inclusive atmosphere that’s good for language learning,” he said. “It helps us get over some of those mental blocks.”
Among other techniques Viles has documented is the creation of language-specific “domains” in the home, such as designating the kitchen as a native-language only location. Or it can be a more situational arrangement, such as only using native language greetings with a particular friend.
Other language learners, including Viles himself, will stick labels with the native language nouns on household items, a popular method that Viles said he found liberating.
“It just gave me permission to speak the language around other people at home,” he said. “It made it normal.”
His report will also examine the use of technology in everyday language learning. Thanks to the use of a keyboard-friendly alphabet, Viles regularly texts and e-mails family members in his ancestral language, and he uses Skype to practice speaking with his brother, a 31-year-old graduate student at Stanford University.
Viles is currently conducting interviews for the thesis project, and plans to finish it by this fall. While committed to tribal causes, Viles is unsure what kind of career path he’ll forge for himself, but he knows studying the language will be a lifelong, rewarding endeavor.
“Looking back, I really appreciate how learning the language can give me a different perspective on things and helped me better understand [the tribe’s] connection to space and geography,” he said.
He also sees, from his environmental studies background, how distorted media narratives used to describe the plight of endangered species can be projected onto indigenous people, a phenomenon common with native languages, especially those referred to as being near “extinction.”
“We’re often treated like an endangered species. Our languages don’t get attention or funding until we’re down to our last few speakers,” he said. “But it releases some of that stress to know we can make language learning just part of our everyday lives.”