Teens struggle to maintain a connection to their native tongues — and their cultures

December 7, 2018

Kaylene Quam (Zuni), a senior at the Santa Fe Indian School, still remembers the first time she heard the Zuni language being spoken by her older brother, even though she was a baby at the time.

“Since I was so young, I’m not sure how I felt,” she recalled. “However, now that I’m older, being away from home restricts me from learning more. My language is very important as it makes me who I am. It is the foundation to our prayers, stories and songs.”

By freshman year, Quam had learned how to introduce herself in Zuni. And in high school, she decided to enroll in a Zuni class to learn more vocabulary and practice her skills.

“I never thought I could learn this much,” she said.

Now, Quam is just one of the several thousand bilingual students in New Mexico — and one of just 9,500 people in the country who still speak Zuni, according to a report by Omniglot.

Although almost half of New Mexico residents identify as Hispanic, and a tenth of New Mexico’s population is Native American, data reported by the MLA Map Data Center show the rates of people speaking Spanish or a Native American tongue are slightly lower.

About 29 percent of people 5 years old and older spoke Spanish at home, according to the report, and Navajo and other Native language speakers accounted for less than 8 percent of the population.

The lower rates beg the question: Are young people keeping up with languages historically spoken by their families and communities?

Language attrition, or the process of losing a native tongue one has been exposed to from birth, is something that concerns Santa Fe’s school administrators.

Mila Padilla, who teaches Zuni at the Santa Fe Indian School, said language loss can be damaging to cultural history.

“Young people who do not live on the reservation but in urban areas are not hearing or learning the language,” Padilla said. “This causes a disconnect from the teachings, which are essential to cultural identity.”

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García agrees.

“It is important to maintain your home language,” García said. “It is an important part of culture.”

Santa Fe Public Schools offers teens the opportunity to become immersed in a second language through things like the dual-language program, in which students can learn English and another language. These programs can both strengthen the skills of native speakers and give students an advantage with regard to employment and communication.

“The benefits are many, from stronger cognitive development to better connection to cultures,” García said, “and it makes you more marketable to employers — students who are proficient in more than one language perform better on tests.”

Teachers such as Padilla and groups like the First Nations Development Institute emphasize the importance of maintaining Native American languages.

“My reason for teaching the Zuni language is to ensure our future generations to come will continue to exist,” Padilla said. “As A:Shiwi [Zuni] there is no greater reason than that. We are the first Pueblo people to encounter the Spanish, endured the harsh realities of federal government policies throughout the past.”

The First Nations Development Institute, a Native-centered nonprofit, is offering grants of up to $90,000 through their Native Language Immersion Initiative, to strengthen already-existing Native language programs and stem the loss of Native languages and preserve culture.

Even if a formerly fluent language speaker loses their familiarity with a language, that doesn’t mean hope is lost.

Monika S. Schmid, a professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Essex in England told Generation Next that people who grew up hearing a language typically hold onto some familiarity with it.

Even if someone were to completely forget their first language, she said, they would be able to relearn it at any time with proper practice and education.

“Any person can learn any language at any point in their life — it depends on how much you work on it,” Schmid said. “There’s certainly not an age where you can’t learn languages — it might be more difficult to lose an accent or learn the grammar, but one can learn a language at any age.”

But is keeping up with their native languages something that is still important to Santa Fe teens?

“Many teens and children are learning the language one way or another,” said Kylie Awalagte , a senior at Santa Fe Indian School who started regularly speaking Zuni when she was 12 or 13. “I always see a lot of kids dancing and participating in cultural activities.”

Some teens, like Tavia Chuyate, believe they are maintaining their native language well.

“I have been speaking [Zuni] fluently since I was about 7 or 8 years old,” Chuyate said. “Since then, I have spoken it and have built up my vocabulary, but as I have gotten older, there were not many people — such as my peers — who spoke it. But I am still able to speak it to my parents and my family, especially my elders.”

Other teens, such as Jessica Hernandez-Monsalvo, a sophomore at Mandela International Magnet School, say being surrounded by English speakers takes a toll on her ability to speak Spanish.

“Most people I talk to, go to school with or learn from speak English, and it seems as if I speak English a lot better,” she said.

However, she said, that doesn’t mean Spanish is any less important to her. “It is of great importance, my language to my identity, because it ties back to where I was born and who my family is,” she said.

Quam believes that keeping up with one’s native language is the most important thing a person can do.

“If you truly want to speak your language, then you will do the best you can to learn it. It is a unique, one-of-a-kind language spoken only by the people. Without teaching the younger generations [these languages], we will lose who we are. We will lose what makes us special. More importantly, we will lose our traditions.”

Niveditha Bala is a sophomore at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at niveditha.bala@mandelainternationalschool.us.

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