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Tribes strive to save native tongues

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Hebrew, taught by Zionist settlers in Palestine and which later became the official language of Israel, is the most notable exception. Today there are about 7 million speakers. New Zealand has spent millions of dollars promoting Maori, teaching it in schools, and in 1987 recognizing it as the third official language. But the number of fluent Maori speakers there has dropped by 10,000 – about 17 percent – over the past 10 years and some 80 percent of them are more than 35 years old.

"A language dies when you don't have children picking it up in the home," says Scott DeLancey, a University of Oregon linguist.

Here in America's Northwest, there are signs policymakers are beginning to take some notice. Last May, the Oregon State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Ms. Johnson's grandmother, Gladys Thompson, for her efforts to teach Kiksht and "her dedication to the preservation of Indian ways."

In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded $5 million to support efforts to digitally record more than 60 endangered languages around the world. Included was $263,000 to document stories and conversations in Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, spoken along the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska and islands off British Columbia.

"At least it's a validation of the implications of what is to be lost," says Patricia Shaw, director of the First Nations Languages Program in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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