Kumeyaay Language Loss and Revitalization

Indigenous populations around the world face the culturally devastating prospect of language loss. In the United States, Native communities are at risk. This study examines the challenge of language loss for the Kumeyaay Nation, located in southwestern portion of the United States. It explores the language loss experienced by the Kumeyaay people, as well as the impact this loss has had on its people in San Diego, California, and Baja California, Mexico. This is a uniquely Indigenous study: the author is a Kumeyaay tribal member and fluent language speaker, and Kumeyaay elders provide insight for policy recommendations. Interviews with extant Kumeyaay speakers reveal their small number and the difficulties of language transmission for the individual, family, and community. Perceptions of Kumeyaay elders about language atrophy are mapped onto UNESCO factors of language loss and are placed in the context of language socialization literature. The practices of extermination, containment, and later, of assimilation are shown to have directly and indirectly threatened the Kumeyaay language. Interviews show that elders’ perceptions about the state of the language are accurate, and they support the UNESCO supposition that small numbers of speakers and a lack of intergenerational language transmission can produce language atrophy. Prospects for current revitalization of the language depend upon an inventory of Kumeyaay language assets and innovative language transmission programs tailored to Native Kumeyaay communities.