Language is the thread that connects Native American communities with their traditional way of life, their histories, their ceremonies, their prayers, and the words of their ancestors. It’s vital to cultural identity. Yet without intervention, half of the world’s indigenous languages are expected to vanish in the next 100 years. According to the Linguistic Society of America, of the 165 indigenous languages still spoken in North America, only 33 are regularly spoken by children. Once the majority of young people in a community no longer speak their heritage language, it declines rapidly.
That’s where Melissa Axelrod steps in. A linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico, she has devoted her life to rescuing dying languages. She sees herself not as a hero, however, but as “a professional helper. I don’t have any standing in the Native community to tell people how to organize a program to revitalize their language,” she explains. “I can only ask them what they want to do and then suggest possibilities, seek funding, or help with whatever they need help with.” As a graduate adviser, she regularly counsels students on careers in linguistics. Her advice: For students interested in indigenous languages, opportunities and funding abound.
Axelrod is enthralled by the myriad ways different people combine words and sentences to express experience. “My interest has always been in language structure, the grammar of language,” Axelrod says. “So many different ways to talk about the world, it just makes you think how brilliant we are as human beings.”