U, Smithsonian join forces to protect native languages

The U’s newly established Center for American Indian Languages is collaborating with the Smithsonian to help preserve disappearing languages.

The two groups will create dictionaries, record oral tradition and teach classes for tribesmembers to learn their native languages or reinforce it.

“Both the Smithsonian and us have the same goal: to protect endangered languages. They share a deep concern about the loss of languages and the needs of the communities who speak them,” said linguistics professor Lyle Campbell, director of the center, which is located in Fort Douglas.

The first planned activity is a joint conference and a jointly developed publication beginning in April.

Languages are an essential part of American Indian culture, Campbell said.

“Many Native Americans see their languages as tied to their cultural identities-values they don’t want to lose,” he said.

Campbell said he hopes his work with fellow academics will help preserve the languages, but he also hopes to attract others as well.

“I hope students will not include only traditional students but Native American communities who will work with their tribes,” Campbell said. “We’re going to take a gentle approach; we’re only going to offer services that the tribes want.”

The center is part of the U’s linguistics program, and it opened its doors last semester, though it has not yet had an official opening.

The center is currently working with two grants, one to study Shoshone and Goshute languages and one to study the indigenous people of Northern Argentina and Brazil.

“The center’s idea is that first it will focus on the tribes of Utah, and then expand from there. We’ll offer what we can, but we can’t do too much with the number of people we have,” he said. “The need to protect endangered languages is pretty universal, and we’re willing to help anywhere that needs it.”

While the number of linguistics professors able to work with the program is currently small, Campbell said he and his colleagues are starting to make contact with professors in other campus departments.

Those on campus aren’t the only ones who are involved. People from the community have donated their native language dictionaries and other books involving the academia behind endangered languages.

“We have the money for the research, and we’ve been lucky to get books donated, but we don’t have money for things like furniture, so we’ll gladly accept donations,” he said.

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