Colorado professor to speak in Steamboat about endangered languages
November 20, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Andy Cowell has spent more than a decade learning and studying a language he said is only still spoken by about 250 people, most of whom live in the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation of central Wyoming.
Cowell, a linguistics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the endangered Arapaho language he now speaks uses only a couple of sounds not heard in the English language, and its distinction lies in its structure.
"It has extremely long words that combine a lot of different concepts into them," he said.
On his way back to the reservation where he has spent years studying efforts to preserve the language, Cowell on Monday night will stop at Bud Werner Memorial Library to discuss his research.
His discussion will follow a free screening of "We Still Live Here," a PBS documentary that chronicles efforts to revive the native language of the Wampanoag of southern Massachusetts, whose last native speaker died more than 100 years ago.
Jennie Lay, the library's adult programs coordinator, said Saturday that the film screening and Cowell's talk will help shed light on the difficulties Native Americans are faced with as they work to preserve their own languages in Colorado, Wyoming and across the West.
"A lot of Native American languages are disappearing, and it has become a challenge to come up with programs to teach young people in these tribes their native language," Lay said. "On a personal level, I was excited to see a film on this topic because it's something I've written on myself."
She said she also is excited to hear firsthand from Cowell as he describes how a tribe in Steamboat's backyard is working to keep their language alive.
Cowell described his work with the Northern Arapaho tribe, which has focused on documenting and preserving the language on paper, as an effort to save an important part of history.
"Language is a part of national heritage, and many tribes feel like if they lose their language, they lose a significant part of their identity," Cowell said, adding most of the native speakers of the Arapaho language alive today are elders in the tribe. "It becomes an intergenerational trauma. Grandparents cannot talk to their grandkids, and a lot of stress goes forth with that loss of the language."
Cowell said the Arapaho have faced difficulty teaching their native language in schools in the same manner French and Spanish are taught in public schools. He said other schools in the reservation are conducting classes in the native tongue in hopes to immerse students into the language.
"There's a lot of effort and a lot of desire to save this language, but at the same time, we haven't had as much success as we hope for," Cowell said. "It really shows how hard it is to do this."
The library will start the free film screening at 6 p.m., and Cowell will speak at about 7 p.m. at Library Hall.
"Languages are a very important piece of culture, and Andy is a great person to speak to that," Lay said. "It's going to be an interesting night."
— To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com