Tongue Tied- page 2 | Heritage | Smithsonian
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(Roberta K. Hill)

Tongue Tied

Some 200 Native American languages are dying out and with them valuable history

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(Continued from page 1)

To keep Chemehuevi alive, Hill often talks to himself. "All the elders are dying off," he says. "There may be about 30 true Chemehuevi left."

More than words are lost when languages die. They carry valuable information about a population's history and living environment.

"These people have been living and interacting within their ecosystems for millennia," Anderson says. "There is any number of things that people have been talking about for years that we're unaware of that could help society. For example, the Maya had an extremely sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, and most of it is lost."

So how do you save a language? Hill tried the obvious route—teaching his stepson—without success. "I taught him a word a day, and he used to write them down," he says. "I don't know what happened to that."

Anderson and the others at the institute perform linguistic triage with technology and psychology. First they determine why a community or group has abandoned a language in the first place. Then they work to elevate its status.

"Talking dictionaries help, and we're trying to build talking encyclopedias," Anderson says. "People love to play with them, especially young people. We show them that the stuff their grandparents know isn't boring."

The institute goes where their assistance is wanted, from Siberia to Africa to India. In doing so, they've identified 18 "hotspots"—homes to languages on their last gasps. Two of the top five are in the United States: the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. These are places with high concentrations of Native American populations.

"It's a rescue mission," Anderson says. "But we're trying. We're trying."

Robin T. Reid, a freelance writer and editor in Baltimore, Maryland, last wrote for Smithsonian.com about fossils in Kenya.

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