The Elders: Language and Loss

I think that of the three Elders who spoke to us today, Selina was the one whose talk affected me the most. I can’t even express my sense of what a horrific act it is to try to destroy a language, and how great a tragedy it is when language is lost. And the personal cost, as Selina showed us, is almost unimaginable.

I have spent enough time studying foreign languages to know that when you shift into another language, something in your personality shifts. You can’t convey the same thoughts in another language that you would in your own – the words are different, the metaphors and the idioms and the emphasis are all different – and so your thoughts change to fit the new language. It’s disorienting enough when you’re an adult and still have access to your own language and culture; what must it be like for a child, to be suddenly and thoroughly cut off from the language that expresses who you are?

I was struck, on the first day of the program, by something David said in his talk. He said that his father raised him to be bilingual – “because he believed I was brilliant.” And he went on to talk about how he was called all kinds of things for being bilingual, one of which was “stupid.” It seems so obvious that, as David’s father believed, and as David said, being fluent in more than one language is brilliant, it’s an accomplishment, it’s worthy of respect. And yet there are so many children who speak two languages and yet are told again and again that they are less intelligent, more limited, than their peers who only speak one.

The other day, I was at a family dinner with my cousin Hannah and her little daughter Marigold, who is in a Tlingit immersion program at her elementary school. My aunt Kate wanted me to hear how good Mary’s pronunciation was, so she was asking her to say difficult words. “Mary, what’s the word for ‘felt?’” And Mary would instantly come out with the word, very clearly and distinctly, and with a huge smile on her face that said that she was note-perfect and knew it. Listening to Selina, and thinking about David’s talk on the first day, I thought: Mary has never learned to associate shame with speaking Tlingit, and I truly hope and believe she never will.

4 thoughts on “The Elders: Language and Loss”

  1. Katy,

    What a touching post! Wow. Thank you for making the connection that learning another language creates change in us. I totally know what you are talking about, but I never thought about it in the greater context of being forced to abandon my first language. It is incredibly sad to think that anyone’s culture would be shamed. I am very happy to hear your cousin’s daughter is already learning about Tlingit culture- may it stay that way!

  2. I also hope speaking Tlingit doesn’t have negative connotations. I really think bigotry in the age of information is on the way out and the love for diversity in culture is on the rise. I welled up numerous occasions during that class. Lonesome…

  3. Nice comments Katy. I also felt like Selina had the most moving words to say. She was in the same generation as my grandmother on my dad’s side, and I have heard some of the bad stories too. As I think back to when Selina talks, she always has a smile on her face. Even when talking about the tough subjects that should upset her. I guess she’s been dealing with it for a long time. Maybe she is to the point where parts are just numb now. I also hope that Mary never feels bad about speaking Tlingit. There are some mean kids out there though and I know similar situations that made other kids feel bad and they gave up on the language.

  4. The image of one’s personality shifting when speaking a foreign language is truly haunting when looked at in the context of the destruction of a language. I cannot imagine being forced to give up my language and in consequence, part of my personality. It is a shame that even today, there are some students who are still being shamed for speaking multiple languages.

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