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Keeping their word

UW scholars help preserve Native languages

January 5, 2015

Just as conservationists work to protect the world’s plant and animal species, another community of scholars and activists is focusing on another form of diversity: human languages.

“Existing languages are specific records of human life on Earth in particular places that have been essentially orally transmitted across millennia,” says Rand Valentine, a UW-Madison professor of linguistics. Valentine is an expert on Ojibwe, one of the Native American languages that are the focus of study and preservation efforts in Wisconsin.

Like Valentine, Monica Macaulay is also a professor of linguistics on a similar mission, working to help preserve the languages of the Potawatomi and Menominee nations. Both scholars develop tools such as dictionaries, lessons and guidebooks – called “grammars” – that teachers can use to share tribal languages with their students.

Macaulay says many tribal members are not fluent in their native languages, which have become increasingly obsolete over the past few generations. Classroom education has become a critical part of the preservation effort, reviving these languages among the young.

Valentine understands the shortcomings of the current educational system and is trying to make the process easier for both teachers and students. This motivation has changed the way he approaches his work.

“It’s not just a simple question of what are the principal parts of this verb and that noun, but how do we help children under the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves trying to learn the language,” Valentine explains. “To speak an Algonquian language you need to be fluent in hundreds of different inflectional forms.”


Macaulay has compiled two dictionaries thus far — one for beginners and a second, more intermediate version.

Tapes of Menominee language recorded in the 1970s
Tapes of Menominee language
in the office of Monica Macaulay.
Credit: University Communications

The beginner’s dictionary is organized by topic and can be used by teachers in the classroom. The intermediate dictionary has more words and is organized like a standard bilingual dictionary.

Both dictionaries are available in print and online. The online version includes sound clips, useful in perfecting the pronunciation of words.

For the time being, Macaulay’s work is available only to the Menominee tribe. The books are held exclusively by tribal members, and the website requires a password to enter.

“I think the sense is that outsiders came in and took so many things away, and they sort of feel like this is one of the last things they’ve got, and so just they are going to have it,” she says.

Macaulay is currently working on a grammar of the language that is more specifically aimed at teachers.

“A lot of the existing linguistic material is in such technical terms that it doesn’t make sense to non-linguists,” says Macaulay. She is making an effort to steer away from that pattern.

Valentine, meanwhile, is working to preserve the Ojibwe language, which itself is diversified through many dialects and writing systems. To help standardize the language, he has developed computer programs that help people switch between writing systems. This can allow people in different locations to communicate with their preferred writing style, without the text’s meaning getting lost in transliteration.


Language preservation goes far deeper than simply keeping a language from extinction.

“I think a lot of young Ojibwe kids, especially in Canada, have real identity problems because they don’t know who they are,” says Valentine. “Language can help them realize the beauty of their own heritage and history. It really helps kids to learn the language in terms of recognition of who they are and the worthiness of their heritage. It’s just an incredible jewel in life to have that.”

“To be deprived of language has the opposite effect,” he continues. “You really feel like you’ve lost something or had it stolen. Of course, the history of both Canada and the United States tends to support such a view.”

Macaulay agrees. “It’s very symbolic as part of native culture,” she says.

"Language can help [children]
realize the beauty of their own
heritage and history. To be
deprived of language has the
opposite effect.”

In addition to its cultural importance, both professors see their work with tribes as a way to preserve the beauty and history of these languages.

“These are absolutely beautiful languages and I have a great interest in helping preserve them,” says Valentine. “Not preserve them like something in a jar, but as living languages that can change with the times and develop as all living languages do; as all living things do.”

Valentine says language can also provide a glimpse into the past. When a language dies, a part of human history dies as well. With the death of aboriginal languages, thousands of years of human life on this continent vanish.


A driving force behind language extinction is the media, according to Valentine. Television and the Internet are influential, especially for young people, and both forms of media primarily expose tribal members to English.

English is also the predominant language outside their communities, and even within them. In most places education is in a European language. Macaulay sees the loss of native languages as an aspect of colonization.

“For almost 100 years, the United States took native children away from their parents, put them in schools that were usually far away, and very explicitly forbid them to use their languages,” she explains. “They cut their hair, they made them dress in appropriate clothes for the day, and they really tried to give them a sense that their languages and cultures were something to be ashamed of. It had a powerful and very negative effect.”

That disconnection and loss came home with them, Macaulay says.

“When the children came back to their communities, sometimes they didn’t even remember their languages,” she continues. “But even if they did, they often did not want to teach their own children the language because they didn’t want them to be punished like they were punished. Eventually, the natural chain of transmission was broken.”

See one family’s efforts
to preserve the Menominee
language at The Ways, part
of an ongoing series of stories
from Native communities
around the central Great Lakes.

In the face of these challenges, Valentine and Macaulay’s teaching resources can help spread and preserve the languages, and add to the available set of tools. That includes the Master Apprentice Program, which pairs a fluent elder with a younger person interested in learning the language. Because a classroom setting can sometimes lack the emotion and relevancy needed to truly learn a language, the Master Apprentice Program provides different benefits. Similar to an immersion program, it encourages students to converse in the language, which can aid learning immensely.

Over time, both professors have established many meaningful relationships with tribal members, which has enhanced their work.

“This is so important to people who I really care about,” says Macaulay, “so I feel like it’s something I really need to put my energies into.”

However, these close friendships have also brought hardships.

“Possibly the hardest part is that the remaining speakers are elderly,” she says. “You become very attached to some of these people; you know them for several years, and several have already passed away. It’s sad.”

Both Macaulay and Valentine intend to continue to develop new tools that will help keep these cultural and historical treasures alive in future generations.

“I’d like to write another grammar of this area’s Ojibwe,” says Valentine. “Well, actually, I’d like to write about eight grammars, one for each beautiful dialect.”

Melanie Ginsburg is a senior majoring in journalism.