Endangered Native American Languages: What Is To Be Done, and Why
By James Crawford

The threat to linguistic resources is now recognized as a worldwide crisis. According to Krauss (1992), as many as half of the estimated 6000 languages spoken on earth are ‘moribund.’ That is, they are spoken only by adults who no longer teach them to the next generation. An additional 40 percent may soon be threatened because the number of children learning them is declining measurably. In other words, 90 percent of existing languages today are likely to die or become seriously embattled within the next century. That leaves only about 600 languages, 10 percent of the world’s total, that remain relatively secure – for now. This assessment is confirmed, with and without such detailed estimates, by linguists reporting the decline of languages on a global scale, but especially in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia (Robins and Uhlenbeck, 1991; Brenzinger, 1992; Schmidt, 1990).

In formulating a response to this crisis, there are three questions that need to be explored: (1) What causes language decline and extinction? (2) Can the process be reversed? and (3) Why should we concern ourselves with this problem? Before attempting to provide answers, it would be helpful to look in detail at the situation of Native American languages in the United States.

Language loss has been especially acute in North America. No doubt scores, perhaps hundreds, of tongues indigenous to the continent have vanished since 1492. Some have perished without a trace. Others survived long enough for 20th century linguists to track down their last speakers and partially describe their grammars – for example, Mohican in Wisconsin, Catawba in South Carolina, Yana in California, Natchez in Louisiana, and Mashpi in Massachusetts (Swadesh, 1948). While Krauss (1995) estimates that 175 indigenous languages are still spoken in the United States, he classifies 155 of these – 89 percent of the total – as moribund. Increasingly, young Native Americans grow up speaking only English, learning at best a few words of their ancestral tongue. Out of twenty native languages still spoken in Alaska, only Central Yup’ik and St Lawrence Island Yup’ik are being transmitted to the next generation. Similarly, in Oklahoma only two of twenty-three Indian languages are being learned by children. All of the nearly fifty vernaculars indigenous to California are moribund; most are kept alive by small groups of elders (Hinton, 1994). Few of Washington State’s sixteen Indian tongues are spoken by anyone under the age of sixty. Krauss (1995) projects that, nationwide, 155 of today’s Native American languages will lose their last native speakers by 2050. Most of the twenty that remain, while viable at present, will soon be fighting to survive.

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