Kill the dialect, save the language?

Kill the dialect, save the language?
(Liz Gray/Reporter) University of Oklahoma Maskoke (Mvskoke) language teacher Kevin Roberts-Fields discusses language standardization and immersion.

*Editor’s Note: The story was updated to clarify the last sentence was not a quote from the source. It was also updated to reflect that the source teaches courses outside of OU, which include small group sessions where little English is spoken.

Mvskoke Media apologizes for the error.


Liz Gray/Reporter

Second part of a series looking at the Muscogee (Creek) language

OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ a motto used by the U.S. government during the assimilation era of this country’s history.

By separating a child from their family and banishing the use of their Native language, the identity that once was fades.

But languages that were once taken away through education are being taken back by education today.

The Hawaiians faced a similar situation with their language on the verge of extinction.

Boarding schools modeled after the ones designed for Native Americans by the U.S. government were established. The Hawaiian language was outlawed in both public and private schools, much like the use of Native American languages in the mainland education system.

Through the efforts of a committed group of people, an immersion preschool was developed in the early 1980s and since then the Hawaiian language has been completely revitalized.

University of Oklahoma Maskoke (Mvskoke) language teacher Kevin Roberts-Fields discussed how though the Hawaiian language has been revitalized, there is still criticism of its standardization.

Roberts-Fields suggested that perhaps the way we look at standardization should change.

“Maybe it’s semantics, maybe it’s not. Maybe the thing that we need to change is from standardization to formalization. Maybe that’s better, because we’ve never really had a formal language,” he said.

The disclaimer for the Muscogee Language Program in the first part of this series mentioned dialects.

Roberts-Fields said the usage of the word dialect is perhaps where the confusion begins.

He said there are only three dialects of the Mvskoke language; Creek, Oklahoma Seminole and Florida Seminole, but within those dialects there are local variants.

“What does it matter if I use a different term than somebody else does if we are still speaking?” he said. “We tend to make things more complicated than they really are.”

The Hawaiians figured out a way to revitalize their language through an immersion preschool program. Though there is still criticism on what was chosen as the standard to teach, it is still being taught. Today, a child can learn from infancy to a master’s degree in the Hawaiian language.

How can the Mvskoke language achieve this type of success?

The conversation with Roberts-Fields points to immersion, comes with its own set of obstacles.

The way Roberts-Fields instructs is based off of the master-apprentice model. He teaches courses outside of the college setting where there are two speakers with a group of six-10 students that are together three-four hours a day, five days-a-week, with roughly 95 percent of the class spoken in non-English.

There are no handouts, no pencils. Just speaking.

He claimed this method has created great success rates of fluency in the Mvskoke language and sees it as the only way to create fluent speakers.

When asked about the methods currently being used by the Muscogee Language Program and the classes offered at the College of the Muscogee Nation, Roberts-Fields said it was good to have them available, but expressed concern about the lack of continuity.

“You have to spend the hours in the language to be able to acquire the language,” he said.

Roberts-Fields said if the majority of a one-hour language class is spoken in English, students are losing contact hours in the Mvskoke language.

Exactly how many hours would a student need to obtain absolute fluency in the Mvskoke language?

Roberts-Fields used the example of Mandarin to give an idea of how long it could possibly take.

He said Mandarin roughly requires 3,000 contact hours to become fluent.

There is not an assessment for how many contact hours would be necessary for a native language, however Roberts-Fields stated that languages such as Cherokee or Navajo would be beyond the 3,000 contact hours required for Mandarin, an estimated 4,500 contact hours.

In his example, if Mvskoke were equivalent to the hours needed to be fluent in Mandarin and a student attends an entire non-English speaking class for one hour, five days-a-week, it could take that student 11.5 years to become fluent in the Mvskoke language.

In order to cut down the time, it would take a minimum of 15 hours-a-week over a period of two years.

“The answer is there,” Roberts-Fields said.

Roberts-Fields said it comes down to funding and which numbers are important. If a language program were to focus on a small group of students over numerous years, there is no guarantee that those students will leave the classes with the intent to teach.

If the community dedicated the time and resources to reach out to the younger generation and develop an immersion school, would that save the language?

Are the Muscogee (Creek) people making it more complicated than it needs to be?

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  • Carolyn King
    November 8, 2017, 2:11 am

    I am proud of the many language programs that the tribe has thus far. As an at large citizen, it is difficult to converse and make sentences in a community of non-Creek speaking people. So, I depend on MCN for each program available. Funding is important for innovative ideas for securing the future of the Mvskoke language.