By Samuel Broncho

16 December 2016 - 17:20

Death Valley, home of the Timbisha Shoshone. Photo (c) esudroff, licensed under CC0 Public Domain, adapted from the original.
Death Valley, home of the Timbisha Shoshone. Shoshone lacks a standard writing system that everyone can agree on. Photo ©

esudroff, licensed under CC0 1.0, adapted from the original.

We asked Shoshone speaker Samuel Broncho.

What are the particular challenges of learning a language that isn’t written down?

If you are used to learning languages in a classroom setting, an oral language is hard to master. For example, my Native American language, Shoshone, lacks a standard writing system that everyone can agree to use. Shoshone people have worked with linguists to develop writing systems, only to have them rejected by traditionalists within the various Shoshone tribes. Some people strongly believe the language shouldn’t be written down at all, while others think writing it will push the language forward and preserve it.

It is frustrating to have to learn a handful of writing systems to communicate. But this conflict also reflects the effort to continue Shoshone’s oral tradition, to respect each tribal dialect and protect each tribe’s individuality. Still, the question of whether or not to use an existing writing system, 'write it how you hear it', or make a new system, comes up regularly in the classroom.

Why is it a problem to write down an oral language like Shoshone, using English writing conventions?

Many English speakers cannot recognise the phonemes in Shoshone, partly because they are just unable to hear the unfamiliar sounds. This creates a problem when people use the 'write it how you hear it' method, because it means using English conventions to write their own interpretation of what they hear.

English does not use a one-to-one sound-to-symbol system: think how ough is pronounced in 'bough', 'dough', 'rough' and 'through'. English-speakers also pronounce sounds differently depending on their accent. So there is no consistency when using English writing conventions to represent a different language.

An example of this might be figuring out how to represent the sound ‘e’ as in the word we use for 'people', 'Newe'. The issue with this sound is that it is not isolated in English. It can be found as the ‘u’ in ‘put'. We write it as ‘Newe,’ but this has led to a misconception that the word is pronounced 'new-wee'. So spelling in English is problematic, without some kind of standard symbolic representation.

What is the history of your language?

The Shoshone language is a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family. It originated in the area where the Aztecs lived and spoke. Although it doesn’t totally resemble Nahuatl (the Aztec language), it has some similarities and roots that can be traced back to it. Shoshone people live in Nevada, north-western Utah, and southern Idaho. Because of this large land mass, there are a vast number of dialects. Our language, like that of many of the tribes in the western US, was one of the last languages to be affected by non-native contact, so our oral tradition has only recently been compromised.

Why might speakers not want their language to be written down?

Some speakers of oral languages do not necessarily even want a standard representation on paper. We Shoshone appreciate each other’s individuality and embrace different pronunciations. With standardisation, we might lose that personalisation.

Writing our language down also offers a path for outsiders to potentially exploit cultural knowledge intended only for Native people. As a whole, Native Americans have experienced years of forced assimilation. Relatively recently, our people went through a time that we know as the 'boarding school era', when Native American children were separated from their families and forced into boarding schools to try to assimilate them into a society that was completely foreign to them. The motto was 'Kill the Indian, save the person'. Being stripped of our culture and language left deep wounds that still affect us today. Our people are very proud of what culture and language we have left.

Our elders, especially our elder veterans, share stories of being in WWII. In these stories, they describe speaking in their language and no-one being able to know what they were talking about. These are the code talkers of WWII; the Native American soldiers who passed on tactical messages in their languages, an undecipherable 'code' that the enemy couldn't understand. It is ironic that the same languages that this country tried to strip from our consciousness, helped win the war. This is another perspective that elders take when talking about keeping our language oral.

For the reasons above, it is very hard to sell Native American elders on any notion of writing. However, the lack of written text can make it harder to teach to younger generations. One obvious solution to this would be to have Native American elders teach the language in an immersive setting; but it can be difficult to find someone who will be an effective teacher, and who is willing to teach outside their family in a classroom setting. Community politics, family quarrels, and just a lack of knowledge of how to effectively teach a language makes people very apprehensive, even if they are interested in teaching.

As the new wave of Shoshone language learners, we want to do what we can to gain a form of Shoshone and refine at home with our families. By learning what we can and teaching one another, we try to build language domains among each other and inspire elders to speak outside of classroom practice.

We learn language by ear as small children. But is it more difficult as an adult? If so, how do you mitigate that?

When we learnt our first language(s) as children, we were in total immersion environments. People expected us to speak, at any degree of fluency; we discovered the ins and outs of the language as we went along. As adults, we cram this two-to-three-year process into a handful of weeks, where we learn for three hours a week. The entire process of learning a language in a classroom setting amazes me, particularly when people are able to be successful at it.

What's different about the way you teach?

Although I teach in a classroom setting at a local community college, I set my expectations for my class to realistic goals. I introduce new material one day, and work to solidify a concept before moving on.

My methods differ in terms of how prescriptive I am about a writing system. Sometimes students will use English conventions or spell things wrong. This is not completely detrimental, because my students' objectives are to be familiar with various writing systems and to focus more on understanding the spoken language.

My main goal is for my students to feel comfortable practising and speaking Shoshone. I host language immersion dinners with native Shoshone speakers, which I hope will attract my students, other new learners, people who are curious about learning, and fluent Shoshone speakers to come together in our community. I would love it if people in our community greeted and spoke to one another in Shoshone.

I have handouts that include vocabulary, phrases, and practice excerpts that I go over with my class. We work hard with pronunciation during the first class of the week, reviewing vocabulary and phrases. The second class is about repetition: we do a speaking activity to practise repeating the vocabulary we have learnt.

What system do you use for writing exercises?

There are two main writing systems for Shoshone: the Miller-Crum system and the Gould system. The first was developed in the 1960s by Wick Miller, a non-native anthropologist, and Beverly Crum, a Shoshone elder from Owyhee, Nevada with a masters in linguistics. They developed a system to reflect Shoshone phonemes on a one-to-one symbol-to-sound basis. The other system is used more widely in southern Idaho. It was also developed by a Shoshone elder (Drusilla Gould) and a non-native linguist.  A few other systems have been developed in isolated areas, but these are the best-known two.

I use both of these writing systems because there is a ton of material transcribed in both. I use Gould's textbook as a reference for conversation examples, while using the Miller-Crum material for grammar. To avoid confusion and maintain consistency, I try to transcribe examples from the Gould book into the Miller-Crum writing system.

How did you learn Shoshone? Did you speak it at home as a child or learn as an adult?

I grew up hearing Shoshone and Paiute my entire life. My mom is from a reservation about an hour north of where I live. When our family came to town or when people came over, they always spoke in either Shoshone or Paiute. We weren’t explicitly taught either, as a result of my dad going through the boarding school system as a child. He wanted us to not struggle with English, so we learned that as our first language. Once I got to be about ten years old, my auntie began teaching us some Shoshone and Paiute. After that, I would try to get my parents to speak to me more in Shoshone or Paiute.

It wasn’t until high school that my friends and I took a Shoshone language class at our community college. After high school, I did an internship programme for Shoshone youth that helped me learn a bit more. I attended that programme every summer, and as I lived down the road from my old Shoshone teacher, I was able to practise and solidify what I had learned. Now I practise with my mother and elders around my community.

Can techniques for learning an oral language also be used when learning other languages? 

Yes. I am also studying Korean, and I think the most beneficial aspects of learning Shoshone first was that I was familiar with different sounds that don't necessarily exist in English. People tend to struggle with hearing and articulating new sounds, so for me, this was a huge benefit.

Korean actually has more similarities to Shoshone than English does. Shoshone and Korean share similar sentence structure (subject, object, verb) and both use prefixes and suffixes that are able to build on words, like bricks of Lego.

When I'm teaching Shoshone, I draw on my experience learning Korean by asking myself: what was difficult, where could I have used more help, and what was useful. This helps me remember what it is like to learn a new language as an adult. I try to repeat, take things slowly, repeat again, but also push learners out of their comfort zones.

I want learners to create language domains in their minds, as well as in physical places. A big step in improving one's language skills is the ability to think about concepts in Shoshone first, before translating into English. I try to get learners to think about everyday life in Shoshone. So, where someone might normally think about a situation where they need to count, instead of 'how much do I need?', maybe they can think 'Himpaikante?' Then they can count how many they need. I want them to be comfortable thinking about things in Shoshone, as well as being able to articulate it in Shoshone out loud.

What are the implications for creativity in oral languages, which rely on living speakers to be passed down? Do they change with every generation, and if so, how?

This is a hard question to answer, considering our language is on the verge of dying out. Right now, there are only a handful of young speakers, so the language has become somewhat stagnant. Yet the role of storyteller among our people is still alive and well, for the moment at least.

Even when told in English, these stories are vivid. But those elders who are still able to tell them in Shoshone can reflect the way they originally heard the stories, back in the day. If we aren't fluent, we can understand the main concepts but the intricacies get lost in translation. It’s still entertaining, but until we get to that point of fluency and understanding, we will have to rely on others to translate.

It’s become harder to hear spontaneous storytelling, and it is scary to think about our stories being lost. These stories are said to have been passed down from the earliest of storytellers. When they are transferred, each story also passes on the power and spiritual entity that lives within it.

Do you feel pressure or urgency to protect and preserve your language, as part of your cultural heritage? 

It is stressful as a Native American to learn a native language - because learning this language is very personal. Native American languages are on a steady decline, so the pressure to learn a language is not only an important factor of our identity, but also has a time limit on it. Our elders primarily hold our language. With a handful of exceptions, it is rare to hear someone 35 and younger speak or understand Shoshone, let alone be fluent.

To what extent is cultural survival tied to the fate of one’s language?

We have been told that our language is a living aspect of our culture: they go hand in hand. We have been taught our culture in English, but our ties become stronger when we use our own language to think and talk about it. My own experience of revisiting my culture with a better understanding of Shoshone has given me a whole new appreciation and wider range of knowledge for our land, our people, and things I used to think I already understood.

Samuel Broncho is a professor of Shoshone language at Great Basin College, and a member of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone Tribe.

Sam is a participant in the Active Citizens programme for the Western Shoshone in the USA, for which he started Shoshone language immersion nights.

Find out more about Active Citizens worldwide, a social leadership training programme that trains participants in the skills needed to strengthen their communities.

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