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Americans recovering their languages and learning their neighbors’

Photo by Ivy Vainio
Participants at the American Indian Community Housing Organization’s Weekly Ojibwe Language Table in Duluth

After a century of language suppression, Americans are enthusiastically committing time and fellowship to mastering tongues other than English. Some are doing so formally, in schools. Others in language villages and weekly conversation tables in their neighborhoods. While it’s often frustrating and discouraging, many are making progress.

Ann Markusen

In the 19th century, newly built public schools offered English-only instruction. Teachers, mainly women, prepared in two-year colleges and then fanned out to teach. Many ended up in rural K-6 schools where students spoke immigrant languages at home. In northeastern Minnesota, Finnish children, including my husband’s oldest sister, spoke only Finn and were severely treated by teachers. Native Americans experienced the same in boarding schools where they were forced to go. The late author Jim Northrup recounted arriving by bus in Pipestone, Minnesota, many hours from his home on the Fond du Lac Reservation. As they disembarked, a teacher severely forbade the 6-year-old to speak to his sister in Ojibwe, the only tongue they knew.

After World War II, most public high schools offered only Spanish, German or French as language electives. Two years of Latin at my Catholic high school strengthened my understanding of language structure. I then studied Spanish for four years and now can also negotiate, haltingly, in Portuguese.

Revitalization is robust

Until recently, public opinion largely opposed bilingual education. But language revitalization is now robust across the country. In Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, language tables in Finnish and Ojibwe explore, nurture and instruct in their native tongues. For several years, I joined the weekly Ojibwe language table 15 miles down the road. We first feasted – a potluck dinner — and then did speech exercises. Cloquet’s Fond du Lac Community College has a well-developed Ojibwe curriculum. As in tribes across the U.S. and Canada, they are producing teachers, scholars, textbooks and literatures in their Native tongue.

Elders play a central and honored role in these efforts. My husband, Rod Walli, runs a Finnish language table in Cromwell’s local assisted living complex, Villa Vista, where many residents spoke Finn fluently as children. Rod’s parents had stopped speaking Finn at home in his childhood, seeing how their older children were treated at school. At Rod’s Finn Table, they share stories, watch films, bring in cartoons and photos, and read letters from Finland. His Finn elders are refurbishing their Finn, while Rod can now communicate on trips to Finland, where his oldest cousins do not speak English.

Formal language camps, elder hostels, and local informal efforts are bolstering language diversification. Rod goes to Salolampi camp at Concordia Language Villages near Bemidji at least once a year. For a week, he lives in dorms, stretches his Finn in a peer group, and dines, dances and sings in Finnish.

Varying levels, dialect differences

It’s not always easy. People may speak at varying levels of competence and comfort. Elders many be hard of hearing. There are often dialect differences. In Arnaudville, Louisiana, a local arts group began hosting weekly French language tables over a decade ago. The first night, a French speaker of Acadian origin tried to correct the pronunciation of a French speaker of Creole origin. The table host immediately intervened: “No, no, no – all versions of French pronunciation are welcome here.” A decade later, the Arnaudville group is close to converting a shuttered 1960s hospital into a French language immersion campus. Already, they’re attracting people from the U.S. and abroad who wish to strengthen their French and connect with French speakers.

George Marks, the artist who initiated the Arnaudville effort, reports the complexity of French-speaking Louisiana people’s self-identity. “Are they Cajun, Creole or something else (if they’re Creole). And what exactly is Creole? What is Louisiana French? Is it Creole French or is it Louisiana Creole? What ‘tribe’ do they belong to?” Joseph Dunn of Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, estimates that Louisiana hosts at least 14 to 18 French dialects. In Marks’ view, the tendency to conflate them all as “Cajun” discourages the celebration of different dialects.

Historically, Native and immigrant arts and culture, language, and dialects were sometimes celebrated. During the New Deal, the Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939) funded regional theater and “living newspaper” performances in immigrant languages: Yiddish, Polish, Spanish, French, among others. Similarly, the Federal Writers’ Project state guides offered tourists roadmaps to culturally distinctive places.

Today we’re nurturing language exploration in schools and communities across the United States. Learning two or more languages strengthens one’s ability to communicate in any one of them. I yearn for local Spanish and Portuguese radio stations where I can practice these languages at the clip they are spoken in ads! I am grateful that operas in Italian and German and many foreign films offer English captions. And for Rod, a man who began his first effort to learn a different language in his 60s, six years of Villa Vista Finn Table have paid off handsomely!

Economist Ann Markusen is an emerita professor from the University of Minnesota and lives with her husband, Rod Walli, in Red Clover Township, Carlton County.

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