In Many Tongues, Alaskans Debate English as Official Language

Ballot measure to require government use of English stirs concern that native languages could be harmed.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At KNBA, Anchorage's native-owned radio station, programmers spice their alternative-rock menu with gentle linguistics lessons. Greeted with the Yup'ik "cangacit?" (how are you?), listeners learn to respond, "assirtua" (fine).

Audience members - many of them urban American Indians, Aleuts, Yup'ik Eskimos, and Inupiat Eskimos who never learned their ancestors' dialects - appreciate the "Native Word of the Day" feature, taped by native elders.

Now a pending statewide ballot measure that would require only English be used by state and local governments is stirring up concerns that native languages will be endangered.

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The English-only movement has swept 23 states, mainly because of concerns over the impact of large immigrant populations. But now it's knocking on Alaska's door, triggering a sensitive and enduring debate over the identity of one of America's most isolated - and international - states.

Although Alaska doesn't have California-type woes, they're coming soon, initiative supporters say. "Alaska, being a relatively new state, will sometimes have problems come to them relatively later than other states," says Tim Schultz, director of communications for US English, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Alaska's growing population includes migrants from California and other states, he adds. When Mr. Schultz recently campaigned for the initiative, he says, "a lot of people who had moved up to Alaska from California said, 'Where can I sign?' "

But even initiative supporters admit that currently there is not a problem of immigrants in Alaska lacking English skills.

In fact, Alaskans are proud of their Pacific Rim ties and international exchanges. Japanese, Russian, and Spanish programs in Anchorage schools are popular. Chinese stores and Middle Eastern restaurants neighbor the Anchorage headquarters of Alaskans for a Common Language, which got more than 30,000 signatures to put the measure on November's ballot.

People worried about the survival of Alaskan native languages say this initiative is an imported issue that hurts, at the very least on a symbolic level.

"Alaska native languages, far from being a menace, are themselves menaced," says Michael Krauss, director of the University of Alaska's Native Language Center. Few of Alaska's 20 aboriginal languages are spoken by children. Some - like Eyak, spoken only by a single elderly Indian woman - are almost extinct. Such is the result of past policies forcing assimilation and newer powers like cable TV, Mr. Krauss says.

If passed, the measure would state, in part: "The English language is the language to be used by all public agencies in all government functions and actions." Exceptions would be allowed in certain cases, such as emergencies and promotion of international trade, but costs related to the use of non-English languages would be itemized in agencies' budgets.

How the measure would actually affect native languages hasn't been established.

The exceptions to the English-only mandates are too narrow, argues the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. If it passes, many local government bodies, such as village councils, fish and game advisory boards, and school boards, would no longer be able to conduct business in local native languages, the ACLU has argued. Even in places like St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, where Siberian Yup'ik is enjoying a renaissance among young Eskimos, the ballot measure would relegate native languages to antique status, predicts Vera Kaneshiro, a Yup'ik instructor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

But initiative advocates say natives, who make up about 16 percent of the state population, have nothing to fear. The measure includes a provision guaranteeing compliance with the federal Native American Languages Act, which encourages the use and preservation of native languages. Attorneys in the Alaska Department of Law, though, say the act may not be able to shield such languages from prohibitions.

Krauss characterizes the federal act as toothless: "It seems to say nice things about native American languages, but it doesn't do anything to protect them from something like [the English initiative]."

English-only advocates insist their supporters are targeting not Alaska natives, but immigrants who refuse to assimilate. "When [measure supporters] see people who've been in our country for 15 or 20 years and don't know English, that bothers them," says Schultz.

Alaska should try to prevent future troubles, says Susan Fischetti of Alaskans for a Common Language. And for Alaska natives, aboriginal tongues do little to help them succeed in the modern world, she adds. "They're not going to be able to speak Yup'ik in Germany."

With opinion polls showing strong support, Schultz and Ms. Fischetti predict their initiative will pass by a 2-to-1 margin or better in November.

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