Outreach and Service
Language is not a static, unchanging entity. In Alaska we are currently witnessing a radical shift in patterns of language use. The roots of this shift are long and complex, originating with the first contact between Alaskans and Europeans, but regardless of its cause the last three decades have seen a rapid shift from the use of Alaska Native languages to the use of English as a medium of communication across Alaska. Native languages--like many of the world's 7000 or so indigenous languages--are in danger of being lost and forgotten as more and more young people grow up speaking English.
Reversing this trend will require significant effort and cooperation between linguists, language activists, and language learners. While it is all too easy to take a language away, there is no easy way to give a language back. However, more and more resources are becoming available to aid in Native language learning. Multimedia resources such as the Tanacross Learners' Dictionary and the Sounds of Tanacross can assist with the basics of pronunciation. Occasional language institutes can offer focused immersive training in an environment conducive to using Native language.
As languages cease to be used on a regular basis, the importance of archiving language data increases. Language archiving has two primary goals: (i) preservation of information about language; and (ii) providing access to language materials.
While there is no way to entire preserve a language once it ceases to have a community of active speakers, by accumulating a range of textual and audio/video materials, we can at least be ensured that some record of the language will survive. And by providing access to those materials we can facilitate language learning and revitalization. Over the past few years I have been involved with a number of projects aimed at ensuring long-term preservation of and access to digital language data. One of these is an NSF pilot project to create a web-based digital resourse for the Dena’ina Athabascan language (see qenaga.org). As Director of the Alaska Native Language Archive, I am also working to provide online access to materials in all of Alaska's Native languages, using the frameworks of the Open Language Archives Community and the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archiving Network.