UNM professor and Regents lecturer in the Department of Linguistics Melissa Axelrod recently received an award from the Linguistic Society of America for her work studying endangered and extinct languages.
Axelrod has been working on language revitalization efforts in the Southwest since 1995, collaborating with the Jicarilla Apache Nation and with the Sandia Tiwa, Nambe Tewa, Pojoaque and Tesuque Tewa pueblos, she said.
“Native American communities across the United States are taking steps toward combating loss of their native language, and for many tribes whose native speakers are few and elderly, the need to increase the number of fluent speakers is urgent,” Axelrod said.
In the U.S. Southwest, Native language teachers and activists are responding to this communication crisis by implementing revitalization and retention programs in their tribes and communities, she said.
With the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Axelrod worked on documentation projects with speakers and teachers, and participated in programs for adults and children, she said. Axelrod also served as the principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded Dictionary of Jicarilla Apache, published by UNM Press in 2007.
Axelrod began her work with the Language Program at Nanbé Pueblo in 2001, funded by awards from the NSF, the New Mexico Department of Education and the Endangered Language Fund, she said.
“Along with brilliant and inspiring language activists and teachers at the Pueblo, as well as an excellent group of dedicated and intelligent graduate students from the Linguistics Department, we are working on a dictionary of the language and pedagogical materials to assist heritage language learners in the Pueblo,” she said.
Axelrod has also been working with a group of speakers of Ixhil Maya in highland Guatemala since 2001. The group she is working with, the Grupo de Mujeres y Hombres por la Paz, is working on oral histories and a trilingual grammar of the language, in addition to learning materials for children, she said.
“Successful language documentation and revitalization projects involve developing detailed knowledge of the grammatical structures of the language in question, knowledge that can be presented to potential community teachers in such a way as to help them understand the teaching/learning process children and others will be participating in as the community re-establishes the central position of its ancestral language,” Axelrod said.
These projects require knowledge about first and second language acquisition processes as they are relevant to the linguistic structure of the language, she said.
Most importantly, these projects involve understanding detailed information about the community, the speakers and non-speakers, the various speech communities within the larger group, the politics of the community and the roles of individuals and groups, and the symbolic value of the heritage language as an indicator of ethnic identity.
“With all of these issues, linguistic and sociocultural, the people best qualified to do language revitalization and documentation are members of the community themselves,” Axelrod said.
Even in situations of significant language shift, language remains a highly charged indicator of ethnicity for minority populations, she said, as one's sense of self as an individual and as a member of a community is shaped by one's language.
“I see my own role as being a ‘helper’ – listening carefully to what community teachers and leaders feel they would like to do and asking them what assistance the University and our faculty and students can provide towards those goals,” Axelrod said.
The role of the linguist is to assist and to bring the resources of the University and of the academic literature to the project, as desired and one must be a resource for the community indefinitely, she said.
Collaborative linguistic research also builds life-long partnerships that are invaluable to Axelrod on both a personal and academic level.
“I have been very lucky to work with many incredible people from Native-American communities, they’ve inspired me with their energy and their generosity, their intelligence and insight,” she said.
Nichole Harwood is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Nolidoli1.