Note: The following article was submitted to Lakota Country Times in
but not published.
OPINION: Lakota Language – A Rewarding Challenge
The March 12th issue included two opinions on the Lakota language. I want to add some of my thoughts to the discussion.
After a long period of language suppression, Lakota is taught again in classrooms and private lessons. The number of speakers may increase dramatically as the momentum to revitalize Lakota and other Native American languages continues to grow. This opportunity does not come without costs in the form of efforts both teachers and students must make but I envision large rewards when the circle has been completed and Lakota has again become the language of choice of many people in Lakota Country.
The language must be preserved, and it is important to devise methods adult and young students can easily follow when they start to learn the language. I am a language student myself and do not have the advantage of living close to fluent speakers.
I have both the Buechel/Manhart and the Lakota Language Consortium's dictionaries. The latter offers far greater insight into the language than the Buechel/Manhart dictionary, and gives far greater consideration to variants and different dialects. It provides translations and explanations of today's meaning of words and also provides archaic meanings in some instances. Buechel's work is partially outdated because the Lakota language, just like English, has changed over time. Buechel reportedly collected words and studied the language. He left many notes and translations of words behind but never spoke Lakota fluently and may have missed small differences in pronunciation a more experienced speaker would have noticed. Not surprisingly, that led to some inaccuracies in his notes. Critics also noted that Manhart may have misread, or misinterpreted some of Buchel's notes which led to erroneous entries in his dictionary.
I am grateful for having both resource available. I personally prefer the simpler orthography of Buechel/Manhart. The words have gotten a bit longer and writing may have become a bit more cumbersome, at least for many who are accustomed to using a simpler orthography. These inconveniences are a small price to pay by current speakers and students because the work of the Lakota Language Consortium provides a convenient way for language students to learn the language in its written form and the pronunciation at the same time. Future students deserve consideration because they will have greater difficulty learning the language when fewer fluent speakers can teach them.
As comprehensive as the new orthography is, it is difficult to learn proper pronunciation from a book alone. Students who hear the language from fluent speakers, listen attentively and then reproduce the sounds will do better than students who have to rely on written descriptions and explanations of how to form Lakota sounds. Audio recordings on tape and CD are helpful but still don’t offer the spontaneous interaction a live teacher can provide. For instance, I have never read instructions explaining the guttural H and the guttural G that really worked for me. I found comparisons to the German "ch" that failed to identify which "ch" sound the student was to choose. I know of three, and those three are very different sounds. Without the proper sounds, the language looses its power. When makha (earth) cannot be discerned from maka (skunk) because a speaker doesn't know the difference between the two "k" sounds, speakers may provide their listeners a lot of entertainment but they will not communicate effectively. Students are then at risk to lose their interest in the language because of the ridicule they may face from their peers for their mistakes. This example stresses how important it is to teach all students well. Experienced speakers know, for instance, what a politician means when he uses "emakiapelo" instead of "emaciapelo" but today's teachers must teach their students the difference so that they in turn will be able to teach the next generation the proper words and sounds.
I greatly respect the elders who teach the language to a generation that has grown up speaking English and thinking in English. English (European) thought patterns differ from Lakota and other Native American thought patterns in many ways. Teachers today need to address that issue in the language lessons they teach. Failure to do so will likely result in future speakers who use Lakota words but still speak "English" and prolong the lifetime of some of the English phrases that have lost their original meaning.
For example, "Have a good day" is not a command to better have a good day or else, but a shorter version of the polite and courteous wish "May you have a good day". Nobody talks like that any more. Saying "anpetu waśte" does not translate this thought into Lakota but indicates something else, namely that this is a good day. That is one example of how an English concept is expressed using Lakota words but that does not make it a traditional Lakota concept. Similarly, a Lakota speaker wouldn't tell an outsider that the thunder beings have come and drenched him. The expression is based on the speaker's Lakota understanding but would make little, or no sense to anyone who doesn't share the same cultural knowledge base.
When the language was suppressed, that cultural knowledge base was also suppressed. Language teachers today have the opportunity to fill the void that developed over time and to instill a sense of awareness in their students that will lead to better cultural awareness and help people find their identity. People who feel lost today, young people in particular, will hopefully realize that they belong to something very valuable and worthy. This realization may even be a turning point for at-risk children.
There are many ways to teach the language. Modern-day school curricula demand an exact plan on what gets taught and when. Lakota wasn't taught like that in the past. The young one's picked it up naturally as they grew up in their tiośpaye. There were no vocabulary drills and tiring lessons on grammatical rules. They learned new words, their meaning and when and how to use them all at the same time and in situations where the use of the new word was appropriate. The ability to pick words out of a dictionary does not provide the same learning experience if the student has to solely rely on the interpretation given in the book and cannot ask a fluent speaker to confirm the appropriateness of the found word in a given context.
Today, teachers have to explain the meaning of Lakota words in English because that is the common language we share even though speakers know that some Lakota concepts, ideas and thoughts cannot be adequately explained in English without lengthy, complicated explanations. Good teacher know that and use this knowledge to guide their students towards the true meaning of the words. A teacher has to know his students to do that effectively and efficiently. The traditional way of life in the old days provided that everybody knew everybody around him. Contrarily, today’s society is divided on so many levels that it is difficult now to find these natural teachers. Luckily, there are still elders on the reservations who are fluent and can share their knowledge and wisdom. They also have a relationship with their local students that is hard to find in the mainstream society.
Language can be used in many different ways. With our choice of words and inflection we can deliver a message somberly, humorously, or in a number of other ways. The delivery influences how the message is received. Only experienced speakers can truly master the language to this extent. The delivery of a message from a fluent speaker may be misunderstood if the message is delivered in writing and all verbal clues and gestures are stripped from the message. Again, learning from speakers is much more helpful than learning from books alone.
Language changes over time with the people who use that language. People are alive. Languages are alive. They are connected with each other. They grow with the people as the people grow, change with them, adapt to new situations and adjust to include new ideas and concepts even when there are no existing words for these new ideas and concepts, or no widely accepted terms to describe their meaning. In some cases, a modern-day English word for a new gizmo is adopted into native languages, and using that English word may be more efficient and may make better sense than a complicated description of that gizmo in the native language.
All languages should be used carefully when we try to express phrases used in another language, or a different dialect. Children pick up the use of words as they learn the language, and some meanings will be lost in the confusion that results when phrases and expressions are translated from one language into another that is not based upon the same basic foundation of knowledge and understanding, experience and beliefs.
The meaning of words in the old native languages often goes much deeper than their English language translation. Some words have no equivalent in English. When the meaning of a word is explained, we can only hope that the listener understands the complexity of that word.
As English has changed over the years and continues to change, so will the Native languages. Teachers must stress the deeper meaning of the words so that they are understood correctly. A generation or two ago, people would have laughed at a 3rd grader who calls his male classmates "dudes". “Dude” is a modern word in the vocabulary of kids. I still get sometimes confused when kids today call something "bad" even though they actually think it is "good" and fully understand the difference between good and bad. They just want to be considered "cool", or "hot", whichever it is right now, and speak the lingo of their peers. Previous generations have not been different. Do you remember words like groovy, marvy and fab that are no longer used today ?
The meaning of Lakota words has also changed over time. For instance, oteĥi used to indicate real hardship, but not having a bad headache and no money to buy more booze. Students today need to understand these changes so that they can use the words appropriately and learn to understand traditional values.
Past generations didn't feel the need to be considered "cool". Individuals were integral parts of a tiośpaye, band, tribe, and didn't want to, or need to differentiate themselves from others by who they tried to emulate in order to be considered "somebody" by their peers. They were valued because of their own character, strengths, courage, their personality, wisdom, the way they treated others, interacted with them, and contributed to the well-being of their family and the whole community. How times have changed !
I hope the children today will learn not only the words but also appreciate the different meaning and the cultural heritage inherent in the thoughts those words express, and the deeper meaning they carry. With the opportunity to teach languages and history and explain cultures comes the responsibility to teach in the light of the wisdom the people have gained over generations. That responsibility rests with all current speakers whether they actually are teachers, or just users of a language.
The many efforts to teach Lakota and other old languages to new generations today offer the great opportunity to not only teach the old languages but to also teach the old values. This combination can improve the spiritual and physical state of so many people who seem lost and wander aimlessly in today's world, both on and off reservations.
Despite all of these challenges, I envision a truly great reward in the end. When young people who have difficulty finding their path through life learn that they can excel at speaking Lakota, when they notice that their peers come to them and ask for advice on how to express something in Lakota, when they feel good about themselves, their accomplishments in learning the language and when they feel good about helping others learn it, too, when the language helps them find their identity, then lives are changing. Language is powerful. It can do that. It gives meaning to many things and it can influence a person’s development and give him new meaning, confidence and self-respect for the rest of his life.
These are some of my thoughts on the subject of language. I do not mean to tell anyone what to do, or how to do something. I only offer my thoughts in the hope some of the readers will give them consideration and maybe share their thoughts as well.
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Copyright: Copyright 2009
Submitted to: Lakota Country Times