This is an exceptionally well-written and poignant article about an issue that is too often overlooked or ignored by the vast majority of people in mainstream modern society and in academia. Countless scholars will give lip service to the importance of language to cultural identity and preservation, but few want to do anything about it when action is needed or called for. The loss of a language is to often brushed aside under the guise of "cultural change" or "adaptation" or "the natural way of things" -- languages have undoubtedly changes and died throughout history, but never with the abrupt and staggering scale that is seen today. The preferential treatment given to some languages over others is a subtle yet real form of ethnocentrism, bias, and colonization, and I think it is inexcusable.
Modernization and the subsequent marginalization of indigenous people the world over has led to the sacrifice of language preservation because of the stigmas attached to being "native" or "different;" the unfortunate economic realities faced by many such groups has also caused funds to be diverted to necessities such as food and medical care rather than cultural preservation in the absence of much outside interest. I have seen this incredibly sad fact in most of the places I work. Among the southeastern tribes in the United States the stigmas attached to speaking a native language prevent many children from wanting to learn their tongue at all, and the social problems that have appeared on the reservation have been cruelly linked to the native identity. Speaking the language and outwardly identifying oneself as native thus gives the speaker a stigma that is assumed by many on the outside to indicate an abusive, alcoholic, or otherwise negative character -- this in turn is used to justify "Americanization," so to speak, and the related loss of language. Again, inexcusable.
In Central and South America there is much interest in the grand archaeology sites and touristy shows put on for travelers, but beyond that constructed world there are countless Mayan and other groups that are trying desperately to save their sense of self. These cultures did not die when the Spanish arrived -- they persevered in spite of colonization and brutality, and today the still exist in the shadows and margins of society. The pressures to become mainstream and blend into society are strong, and it is hard for those who refuse to do so to attain status, wealth, or even a comfortable living. These people are still seen and treated as second-class citizens, and it breaks my heart every time I'm there. The Lenca, a tribe who lives in Honduras near where I work but has lost their language, is a perfect example of this. I met a woman in town one day who identified herself as Lenca, but she then went on to say that in reality she was Honduran. Why is that, I asked -- her reply was that their language and culture had been destroyed and no one knew what it really meant to be Lenca anyway.
The Hawaiian people should be commended for their efforts to preserve the language, and it is my sincere hope that those in Wisconsin and beyond will be able to find the same successes before it is to late. I work with many descendant communities in my research and wish that I could save all of their languages -- I just pray they will be able to hold onto hope and the desire to save them, and that the outside world will realize the immeasurable value of these efforts. My advisers and I do what we can to understand the history and cultural significance of these tongues archaeologically while also trying to help the communities save the modern descendants of the ancient tongues, but I must say that sometimes it seems like an impossibly long climb. Perhaps I'll tell them about this course next time, to show that it is possible, and to prevent others from ending up in the same precarious position as those described by the author above.