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Language revitalization in Northern California: Awakening the Wappo language

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Title: Language revitalization in Northern California: Awakening the Wappo language
Issue Date: 01 Mar 2013
Description: The Wappo language of Sonoma and Napa counties, California, has been considered
“extinct” since the passing of its last first-language speaker, Laura Fish Somersal, in 1990. However, a large amount of the language was documented during the 20th century. Paul Radin collected several Wappo narratives (1924) and wrote a grammar of the language (1929). Jesse Sawyer spent many years working with Laura Somersal and other Wappo speakers in the 1960s and 1970s, and published an English-Wappo dictionary (1965). Sawyer also recorded dozens of hours of elicitation and conversation with Laura Somersal during the 1960s. Sandra A. Thompson, Joseph Sung-Yul Park, and Charles N. Li also worked with Laura Somersal, in the 1970s and 1980s, and produced a concise modern reference grammar (2006). th
In June 2012, the author and two Wappo community members participated in the 10 Breath of Life Workshop at the University of California, Berkeley; excited by our experience, we decided to embark on a language revitalization program among the Wappo community.

In this forthcoming revitalization program, two approaches will be taken. The author will synthesize the extant documentation of the Wappo language (including both published works and unpublished fieldnotes and audio recordings) into a new reference grammar, a teaching grammar, and a bilingual dictionary. The Wappo members, drawing on some of the techniques outlined in Hinton 2002, will begin spoken-language instruction among the tribal community, focusing on the use of Wappo among youth groups engaged in culturally-based service projects. It is felt that introducing the language through the domain of community service and cultural activities will be both more effective and more adaptable than formal classroom instruction.

Our goal is to gradually re-introduce the Wappo language into community life, at all age levels but particularly among youth; this approach is necessitated by the lack of elder native speakers, but also desirable because of the important role youth play as instruments of social change and incipient community leaders. The materials produced will also provide the basis for a language instruction program for the community once a “critical mass” of active participants is cultivated. In both aspects, we will be drawing on much of Joshua Fishman’s Reversing Language Shift framework (Fishman 2001: chs.1 &19). We are very optimistic that, through these approaches, the Wappo language will return to use among the Wappo tribal community, reinforcing the community’s cultural life, traditional practices, and political and economic independence.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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