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

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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.

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. …