Chukchansi course at Fresno State an effort toward preserving language

Darlene Wendels / The Collegian
Darlene Wendels / The Collegian

Darlene Wendels / The Collegian

When you have less than a dozen people speaking your language, who will tell your story when you’re gone?

The American Indian Language Course hopes to preserve a local language with their six-week course that started Tuesday night. It aims to teach students about the Chukchansi language and is free to all.

Shonna Alexander, one of the instructors teaching the Chukchansi language course, said that although learning a new language may seem hard, they start simple and with the basics.

“The outline for the class will consist of beginning lessons, vowel and consonant pronunciation, short stories with different nouns and verbs,” Alexander said.

The first day was spent on understanding the vowel usage, which is different from English, and beginning to phrase simple sentences to be able to communicate.

Alexander, a student at Fresno City College, is a Chukchansi tribe member and works with tribe elders in learning traditional crafts of their culture and their dying language.

The class initially started at the tribal offices of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, but since 2009 the tribe and Fresno State have formed a collaborative initiative, said linguistics professor Chris Golston.

“It’s a labor of love for us all, an incredible chance to work with a rare and complex language that teaches us new things all the time,” Golston said.

“The tribe made a gift of $1 million to the linguistics department in 2001 to fund five years of research on the language and help with documenting and revitalizing it,” said Golston. “So we’ve been running language classes with the tribe for five years or so, helping them with what they began.”

Classes like the American Indian Language course will help counter the growing concern of languages becoming extinct.  According to SIL International, an organization that monitors global languages, there are 473 endangered languages currently in the world.

“One of my biggest goals is to help teach our young ones and to keep the language alive forever,” Alexander said.

In the United States, which has 227 individual languages, 141 are in state of dying, according SIL International. The report also states that 12 are already extinct, and 61 are at risk of dying.

Currently, the Chukchansi dialect, which is part of the Yokuts Language group,  is one of those endangered languages, with only 10 active speakers left. Golston said there were limited resources on how to teach the language, and so teaching how to speak and listen is the goal of reading stories written in the native tongue.

“Some of these stories were told 50 years ago in English and we’re translating them back into Chukchansi and using them in the class,” Golston said.

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