Giving the ‘Breath of Life’ to endangered languages

Following the UC Berkeley linguistics department’s tradition of dedication to recording and preserving the state’s indigenous languages, dozens of California Indians who want to save their native languages gather on campus every other summer, as they have done for almost 20 years.

Participants discuss the program in this excerpt from an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Rick Bacigalupi.

This year’s Breath of Life conference drew its most participants ever – 62 indigenous participants and 40 linguists working together to explore the extensive language archives at UC Berkeley and develop new linguistic skills aimed at assisting language revitalization. While on campus for a week, the participants and their mentors visited archives in the linguistics department, Bancroft Library and Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The linguistics department, the oldest in North America and home to the largest university archive of indigenous language materials on the continent, teams up with the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Together they host a week-long series of workshops and visits to the archives that focus on revitalizing the state’s nearly 100 endangered Indian languages, such as Chumash, Miwok, Pomo, Karuk and others.

Participants have found that it works.

A good example is Cody Pata of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in Northern California, who was a participant in the very first Breath of Life. “At that time, our Nomlaki language was lying dormant within the last few speakers of our tribe – including my own grandmother,” he recalled.

“Upon returning back to our area,” Pata said, “I recounted various words that I had found at the Breath of Life to my grandmother. To my amazement, she began correcting me. No one in my family realized that she could speak our language. Lo-and-behold, a few other elders found the courage to speak our language openly once again.”

Since then, Pata said he has returned many times to UC Berkeley –– three times to the Breath of Life, and several other times to search archives and repositories.

“All of the conference trainings, along with the acquired linguistic data, have enabled the most recent generations of our people to begin to speak the language of our ancestors,” said Pata. “Our language has truly been resuscitated by the Breath of Life.”