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Language instructor Ray George (Oneida of the Thames) teaches students the art of Oneida language.

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Revitalizing Language

While a number of Oneidas have been traveling far and wide for education, others embarked upon a different journey – learning their indigenous tongue. For nearly 18 years, the Nation has been attempting to revitalize its language. Ask anyone involved in the Onyota’a:ká: (Oneida) renaissance and they will relate the difficulties of learning the language… and the rewards.

Seven years ago, the language program began its revival in earnest as several Oneidas engaged in a unique pairing in Indian Country, collaborating with Berlitz – the 129-year-old internationally acclaimed language immersion method employed by diplomats. Under the program’s guidelines, the Nation began intensive Onyota’a:ká: language courses to ensure the survival of its indigenous tongue, an arduous process. Onyota’a:ká: is a complex language to learn. And although the instruction has veered from the original Berlitz accelerated method because of the language’s complexity, the assessment of Richie Van Vliet, local instructional supervisor for Berlitz Language Center, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, still holds true:

“Berlitz divides languages into two sections of difficulty, A and B. French would be on the A list, meaning people can learn it with relative ease. Chinese, Greek and Hebrew would be on the B list due to their complexity and since they require students to learn a different alphabet or characters.

“I’m going to make up a C list for Oneida. It is a very hard language. It will take a student more hours to learn because of the vocabulary. Word lengths are so long. Learning English can be compared to a train with one car following another and another; in Oneida it’s a circle.”

Today, the program has been tailored to the esoteric needs of students learning Onyota’a:ká:. Oneidas are assiduously working on completing the curriculum modeled from the Berlitz program, but tweaked to fit the requirements of Onyota’a:ká:. A difficult task indeed.

Sheri Beglen (Wolf Clan), Penny Raymond (Turtle Clan), Holly Gibson (Wolf Clan) and Mary Blau (Turtle Clan) along with language instructor Ray George (Oneida of the Thames) are undertaking the grueling assignment. When they’re finished, the group will be prepared to share their accumulated knowledge and once again breathe life into the Onyota’a:ká: language.

For her part, Sheri is awaiting the day when Onyota’a:ká: once again resonates on her homelands. A student of the language since 1994, Sheri was part of the initial class modeled after the Berlitz method. The method, based on 40 chapters of escalating difficulty, needed to be tweaked to be compatible with the Onyota’a:ká: language. And Sheri spends a considerable amount of her time in this process.

“It’s been difficult at times, working on the chapters while teaching and attending the classes myself,” said Sheri. “But it’s worth it. The immersion method is the way to go. Several of the years I took lessons, we met only once a week. You cannot learn a language that way.”

The dearth of speakers compounds the problem. Once class is out, there is nowhere to go to listen and speak the language, said Sheri. Compounding the scarcity of speakers is the difficulty of the language itself. Onyota’a:ká: is very time- and location-specific, plus there are 15 different forms of each verb. And the words are very long, another complication when learning to speak.

“Plus the language undulates and depending on the inflection given to a word it takes on a different meaning,” said Sheri. “But it’s just a beautiful language to hear, and it can be fun learning it.”

To ensure the continued resuscitation of the language, Sheri has a complete wish list.

More teachers, of course, would be a priority. And she’d like some of them to be teachers in the Nation’s Early Learning Center, as well as at the local schools. At some point, she’d like to even see classes open up to employees and the general community.

“The idea is to really have the language available so it can be used outside the classroom,” said Sheri. “How nice would it be to hear it spoken around town. I know this is really dreaming.

“But for now, I feel so rewarded when Ray speaks to me and I understand, and when I can actually communicate with others and they understand.”

Mary Blau (Turtle Clan) is much newer to the language program, beginning in 2006.

Her thirst for learning led her to the class; she wanted the challenge. Her reward, she said, will come when she has the ability to pass it on to others.

“We are trying to become as fluent as possible, speaking Onyota’a:ká: almost exclusively during the day,” said Mary. “I’m still at the point where I have to translate in my mind what an answer should be before I say it. But, we are encouraged to try to answer even if we are uncertain. I can usually understand Ray; answering back correctly is the problem.”

The entire group is editing the chapters for the curriculum, a grueling task that requires editing and re-editing. But Mary is experiencing a sense of accomplishment as her language knowledge broadens. Adding one new word a day feels like a triumph due to the complexity of the language.

“Our ancestors must have been genius,” said Mary. “This is a very hard language. On a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the hardest, I’d rate Onyota’a:ká: as a 20.”

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