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Alaska gov. signs bill to recognize indigenous languages

The move makes Alaska the second US state, after Hawaii, to officially recognize native tongues

In a symbolic move aimed at bolstering tribal efforts to save Native American tongues at risk of dying out, Alaska's governor on Thursday signed a bill to officially recognize the state's 20 indigenous languages.

The extinction of languages represents a significant cultural loss for indigenous peoples, because certain concepts and worldviews cannot be expressed without traditional terminology.

“Alaska native young adults and students throughout the state have demonstrated remarkable success in revitalizing Alaska Native languages,” Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, said in a statement. “This bill reinforces that effort and recognizes the vibrant, existing Alaska Native languages of the state of Alaska.”

Parnell signed the bill in the southern municipality of Anchorage to help kick off the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, the state’s largest annual gathering of indigenous people. In April, the state’s legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill. The move makes Alaska the second U.S. state, after Hawaii, to officially recognize indigenous languages, although English remains the official language.

Lance Twitchell, a professor of native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, said the bill was important, even if it is largely symbolic.

Twitchell said he hoped Alaska would now be able to preserve and even expand knowledge of its native languages, pointing to success in revitalizing native tongues in Hawaii, which has "become one of the few areas where they are producing more native speakers than they are losing," he said.

The number of people who can speak Alaska's native languages has been shrinking rapidly, as generations of young Alaskans were discouraged and even punished for speaking them. Some native languages have only a few dozen fluent speakers left, and others are down to a few hundred.

Out of about 6,000 languages around the globe, 1,705 are described as “threatened.” When languages vanish, especially those of indigenous peoples, the community experiences significant cultural loss. 

When European colonizers first arrived to the U.S. over 300 native languages existed. Today, just 175 remain, according to the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative. Nearly half of the languages that still exist are almost extinct — with only a handful of aging speakers left.

Efforts to preserve these languages include building electronic resources that maintain digital records of the tongues in case they go extinct. First Nations in Canada have also turned to technology in an attempt to save their languages, creating a smartphone app that the youth can use for texting in native languages.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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