An Interview with Professor James Crippen on the Importance of Indigenous Language Revitalization (2023)

We spoke to James Crippen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, who is the primary organizer of this year’s Workshop on Structure and Constituency in Languages of the Americas (WSCLA for short), about the importance of indigenous language revitalization efforts, the impact his work has had on indigenous communities in the Yukon and what students and the wider public can learn from WSCLA's public lecture, “Reflection, Resistance, and Resilience: on Indigenous language reclamation efforts in Kahnawà:ke."

The talk, which will be given by Kanien’kehá:ka PhD candidates, Kahtehrón:ni Iris Stacey and Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean from the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, will give linguistic scholars like Professor Crippen, students and the wider McGill community, a local Kanien'kehá:ka perspective on language revitalization efforts from the community members who are actively taking part in sustaining their linguistic heritage.

Community based learning and teaching

“I’m looking forward to this talk as an opportunity to learn, to be able to see this work from the inside,” says Crippen. “For those not involved in [language] revitalization, it’s going to be a really valuable window into the struggle and difficulty that involves these efforts, because unless you’re in it, you don’t understand the problems that people face, or really grasp the complexity of trying to navigate the mental and social space of language revitalization.”

Crippen, who is a member of the Tlingit Nation, has been working extensively for the past 10 years with the Yukon community of Tlingit speakers. The Yukon currently holds one of the largest concentrations of Tlingit speakers, whose traditional territory is divided between Southeastern Alaska and neighbouring portions of British Columbia and the Yukon. Part of Crippen’s work as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia involved a partnership with the Teslin Tlingit Council and Yukon Native Language Centre, a partnership he plans on supporting with a potential SSHRC grant.

“The Yukon Native Language Centre focuses on documentation and revitalization of indigenous languages, so part of what I do is direct work with the community,” says Crippen, “So not just language documentation [and] working with elders to document their language, but also working with language revitalization efforts.”

There are about 600 known indigenous languages in North, South and Central America, and WSCLA’s main objective is to bring together linguists engaged in research on the formal study of indigenous languages to exchange ideas across theories, language families, and across academic and non-academic communities that are actively involved in language maintenance and revitalization.

“WSCLA is a synthesis of two distinct fields of research of linguistics,” Crippen says. “One of which is research on the theory of human language… the universal human phenomenon of language and the fundamental organizing principles of human language, and the other field is specifically the research on indigenous languages of the Americas in general.”

The field of linguistic theory grew primarily out of the study of European and East Asian languages, which dominated the focus of linguistic research in academia for a long time. According to Crippen, the fields of linguistic theory and research on indigenous languages have developed independently for some time, and the importance of a conference and research forum such as WSCLA means that there is finally a space where linguists, along with academic and non-academic communities, can use the tools of modern linguistic theory to study indigenous languages and discover that all languages are familiar in the ways they come to exist.

“Indigenous languages often provide a remarkably distinct view of how language can work, and at the same time, reaffirm the essential humanity of language by saying ‘in the end, it’s all human- we’re all just doing human things," Crippen says.

An urgent call to action

“In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic growth and interest in learning to speak indigenous languages,” says Crippen. “In many places they were almost totally wiped out by government education and religious actions, and that’s certainly the case in the Yukon.”

In his research, Crippen has found that the average age of a Tlingit speakers is in the 70s, an elderly population that interacts with younger generations who do not speak the language at all, or very minimally.

“It’s a dire problem where we’re looking at the last speakers being gone within the next 10 years,” Crippen adds. This makes the need for community based research and the transfer of knowledge a crucial and important reality.

Crippen also dedicates his time to working with a number of younger people, such as teenagers and young adults, who are interested in learning Tlingit or developing their linguistic skills in the language. With limited formal education in the language, and very limited resources to learn from, such as partial and incomplete dictionaries, a lack of published grammar, language revitalization efforts can be prematurely cut short in communities because lack of resources make it impossible for leaners to progress past a basic or intermediate level of competency in the language.

“People burn out,” says Crippen. “Unlike a language with a larger community, there’s nowhere to go to immerse yourself. If you wanted to learn say, Swahili, well you could go to countries where that’s the everyday speech… for most indigenous languages, there’s just no where that people speak it every day, because the vast majority are elderly, and most of them are English speakers and so they speak English with everybody.”

“Part of the problem is, on the one hand, making spaces where people can use the language productively, and on the other, making the linguistic research knowledge available in a way that doesn’t require an advanced degree," he adds.

Crippen’s work with Tlingit communities also involves helping the communities train themselves in basic linguistic skills, such as linguistic elicitation, as well as data management, so that these skills can be transferred to the community to help them build their capacity for basic linguistic documentation and research, which makes the transfer of knowledge a crucial tool for these communities.

Transfer of knowledge and community engagement is a big part of Crippen’s work and he spends a sizeable proportion of the year in the Yukon, working with people in the community. Working directly with communities, establishing trust and confidence in sustaining a language that is an integral part of their identity, is an important facet of applied linguistics.

Crippen also acknowledges the social standing his career as an academic linguist gives him when spending time in these communities.

“Working with the elderly, with disadvantaged people who are neglected and ignored by the rest of the world, sends a powerful signal that this [revitalization efforts] is important,” says Crippen. “This is very important in a community where languages are in terrible decline […] it sends a really valuable signal to them and other groups that their language has value, that people care, so it can help with revitalization efforts in the community, and make the case for funding to support these efforts.”

Crippen hopes that efforts such as his will inspire members of the communities he works in to go into a similar field, just like he did when, years ago, he identified a need for this kind of work in his own community.

“Our presence creates this social capacity,” he says. “The social capacity and interest in learning and studying and valuing the kind of work that people are doing to keep the language going.”

Professor Crippen is also involved in the Montreal Underdocumented Languages Linguistics Lab (MULL-Lab), which is a group of linguists from Montreal universities who work on underdocumented and endangered languages around the world.

Building and maintaining a research community

The MULL Lab is an important research forum for linguistics researchers to learn from each other's work and process.

"One of the things that happens with people working on lesser known, under-documented and critically endangered languages, is that you tend to work alone, there just aren't a lot of people in your field, so you end up having to draw parallels to other major world languages when sharing your work with others, and that sort of dilutes the point of what you're studying," says Crippen.

Forums like the MULL Lab allow researchers of underdocumented and endangered languages to support each other in what can otherwise be a lonely kind of research area, and allows them to share facts, theories and arguments, as well as sounding boards for questions and guidance on data collection, tips and research methods that have worked when collecting data from speakers.

For Crippen, linguistic revitalization efforts are inherently interdisciplinary because it involves all aspects of human life, whether that’s talking about the political organization of human societies or the day to day life of an individual.

Alongside other academics at McGill, Crippen is also working on an ad-hoc program featuring a small cohort of Indigenous graduate students who are involved in studying language mobilization. The students come from linguistic, history and other humanities based disciplines, working with critically endangered indigenous languages, and a shared set of needs in understanding how language functions in society, understanding what makes languages endangered and how to stem the tide and revitalize them.

To learn about this year's WSCLA conference and view the full schedule of talks, click here.

To learn about the MULL-Lab, its participants and research projects, click here.

DzéiwshJames A. Crippen joined the Department of Linguistics at McGill University in 2021. He received his PhD in linguistics at the University of British Columbia in 2019 with adissertationon syntactic structure in the Tlingit language.

Dzéiwshis Tlingit, a member of theKaaḵáakʼw Hít(Basket/Arch House) of theDeisheetaanclan in the Raven moiety (Laayineidí) and a child of theSʼiknax̱.ádiclan in the Wolf/Eagle moiety. He comes from theShtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan(Stikine) inḴaachx̱an.áakʼw(Wrangell, Alaska). He lives among and works primarily with theDaḵká Lingít(Inland Tlingit people) of theDeisḻeen Ḵwáan(Teslin),Taageesh Ḵwáan(Tagish & Carcross, Yukon), andAatlein Ḵwáan(Atlin, BC).


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