Departments, students at UC Berkeley collaborate to create indigenous language revitalization program

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Three UC Berkeley departments have come together to offer a designated emphasis in indigenous language revitalization for doctoral students, recognizing student efforts to teach and learn Native languages.

The designated emphasis in indigenous language revitalization has been developed by the Native American studies program under the department of ethnic studies as well as the linguistics department and the Graduate School of Education. A designated emphasis is similar to a minor for graduate students on a doctoral track, according to the Graduate Division’s website.

“Students have been very committed to revitalization,” said Patricia Baquedano-López, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. “Some students at Cal are from families that speak or spoke indigenous languages, and their work at UC Berkeley has been to be a part of the resurgence of language in their community.”

Coursework for the program was designed in a collaborative process between students and faculty members from each department, according to graduate student Sara Chase, who was a member of the planning committee and is now in the program. Each department developed components of the program that would complement and support each other, Chase said.

Over the past two years, Chase has worked on a language immersion program for young children from the Hoopa Valley Tribe. She designs lesson plans with the help of her aunt, who is a native speaker of the Hupa language. She is now using this work as her “practicum” — a hands-on project related to language revitalization — for the designated emphasis.

Linguistics graduate student Julia Nee, who is also completing her practicum, said she is giving a 20-hour course on the Zapotec language. According to Nee, although Zapotec has about 3,500 speakers, there is some shame associated with speaking the language.

Nee said there was a time when people were punished for speaking Zapotec and instead were forced to speak Spanish. Nee added that children inherited their parents’ fears and trauma, thus further contributing to the disintegration of the language.

“It is important to be able to access the culture through the language,” Nee said. “It helps when the language is still being spoken.”

UC Berkeley has always been interested in working with Native American languages, and there is a history of this in the linguistics department, Baquedano-López said. The designated emphasis program seemed like the natural next step, she added.

According to linguistics associate professor Line Mikkelsen, one of the committee members behind this designated emphasis, ethics has been an ongoing issue for linguists. Mikkelson added that the centering of indigenous people as “agents” instead of subjects in “language work” helps to remedy this problematic history.

“The history is very checkered. … There were extractive practices early on by linguists, and there is certainly a history of broken trust,” Mikkelson said.

Contact Ryan Geller and Francesca Munsayac at [email protected].