The identity component of language is made abundantly clear from the many shibboleth stories recorded since the Biblical era in which rival groups were identified (and often killed) because of their pronunciation of a distinct speech sound. While killings of that type are rare, we still find that communal identities are actively suppressed throughout the world. In many multilingual countries, it is not uncommon for children to be punished physically for speaking their own language in school. While this rarely approaches the extremes of the boarding school systems discussed earlier, the motivations are the same: political insecurities. It is believed that the assertion of an independent culture inevitably leads to the assertion of political autonomy. In practice, it is more often the suppression rather than the existence of a distinct communal identity that fosters independence movements, but for those in power it is typically simpler to suppress cultural diversity than to encourage it.
In relation to language endangerment, Joshua Fishman states it best in his description of the destruction of a language as “the destruction of a rooted identity”. While culture and identity can survive even after a language has become dormant (Baldwin 2003), historically distinct communities lose their most identifying features when they lose their language. Individual community members in turn become alienated from their own history.
The value of rooted identities to individual and communal health is only now beginning to find wider acceptance among scientific circles. Studies in both the United States and Australia have shown significant correlations between increased use of indigenous language and avoidance of drug and alcohol abuse. What is the reason behind this? It is very likely that the very act of speaking one’s traditional communal language is living proof that one does not belong to a vanquished people. As Garifuna activist and long-time ELA collaborator James Lovell sees it, when Garifuna children re-learn the language of their ancestors, it is “empowerment in itself”, both a means and an ends. Being unable to speak one’s communal language, on the other hand, can become a perpetual reminder of a painful colonial history.
In an important step towards the revitalization of their languages and identities, several Native American pioneers have created immersion schools where only indigenous languages are spoken and English is discouraged. One of these pioneers, Tom Porter of the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk community, has gone so far as to call their program “Carlisle School in Reverse” (on the Carlisle school, see the previous Human Rights section). Other prominent programs of this nature include the Māori language Kōhanga Reo in New Zealand and the Hawai’ian Pūnana Leo, both of which now serve as models to the rest of the world. In all of these cases, revitalization represents more than bringing the language back. It is part of a larger movement that seeks to reaffirm the distinct identity of a people and reinstate their power to self-determination.