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Endangered language

Willen teaching in San Carlos. He began his studies of Apache, officially known as Western Apache, in 1993, as a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. With permission, he worked with native Apache speakers, Joycelene among them, to record and study the language. Photo by Kenneth Chan

When a language disappears, culturized traditions and local knowledge are lost. So too, a way of life, and a unique worldview. Within the next 50 years, nearly half of the world’s roughly 6,500 languages could be lost. Western Apache, the official language of the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations here in Gila County, is one of them.

 “The children sing songs in Apache,” says Joycelene Johnson, an Apache teacher, reflecting on the younger generation. “They sound so beautiful, ”yet our students did not know what they were singing, had no understanding of it.”

Joycelene has taught Apache language and cultural appreciation in San Carlos schools for 26 years, served five years as Language Preservation coordinator and takes classes on the topic at the University of Arizona during the summer months. She has witnessed the decline in the Apache language first-hand, and is one of many committed to preserving it.

The local effort to save the Apache language and the culture it conveys includes many players—San Carlos unified schools, Apache K-12 teachers, the Apache Museum, San Carlos Apache Tribal Department of Education, the Apache Language Preservation office, and Dr. Willem de Reuse, a professional linguist who has a ponytail and a Ph.D. and speaks with a Dutch accent. 

Currently employed by The Language Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of indigenous languages, Willem has studied the Apache for 25 years and is the author of A Practical Grammar of the San Carlos Apache Language. 

“I am one of those rare Europeans who came to the United States with one goal, which was to study Native American languages,” says Willem. “I am extremely pleased and flattered that I got to do that.”

Quest of a linguist

As a child growing up in Belgium, Willem read adventure novels about heroic Apaches. At age 8, his father moved the family to France to take a job with the European Space Agency. Under pressure from his Parisian peers, Willem learned the French language quickly. From that experience, he developed a fascination for how languages are formed and how they convey. 

At age 24, Willem came to the U.S. to further his studies. He earned an M.A. in Linguistics at the University of Kansas studying the Lakota language, and a Ph.D. at the University of Texas with a dissertation on the language of the Siberian Yupik Eskimos.

Willen began his studies of Apache, officially known as Western Apache, in 1993, as a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. With permission, he worked with native Apache speakers, Joycelene among them, to record and study the language. The process involved countless hours of recording simple sentences, then expanding into more and more complex sentences and ideas.

To prepare for the work, Willem studied the documented Navajo language, which is “quite similar, but not the same” as Apache. Apache verb prefixes, he says, are extremely complex.

He clearly delights in other discoveries within the language. Mountains are defined by their shape. Trees by the way they grow. 

“There is no word for river or lake,” says Willem with a huge smile. “They are conceptualizations of the general word water. Qualified by a verb.”

He explains that river is expressed as “water that flows” and lake, as “water sitting in an open container.”

“Which is the same word for a cup of tea,” he continues, “It’s all defined by the context.”

Willem de Reuse has studied the Apache language for 25 years. Although he wrote the book on San Carlos Apache grammar and spelling, he is still learning. Photo by Joycelene Johnson.


After more than two decades of study, Willem admits he is not fluent, and proclaims there are parts he still does not understand, like relative clauses. He sees his role as a linguist to a language, as a mechanic to an airplane.

“I can take it apart and put the parts together, but I cannot pilot it,” he says.

His efforts and expertise are lauded by others in the effort to save the Apache language.

“I think he does excellent work as a linguist, writing the Apache text,” says Joycelene, his long-time colleague one-time student. “He has elegant pronunciation of anything that is written in Apache.”

Speaking Apache

There are two Apache languages: Western Apache and Eastern Apache, each of which has a number of dialects. Western Apache is a Southern Athabaskan (Na-Dené) language. The current number of speakers is disputed; estimates range from 14,000 to fewer than 5,000. No one denies the number is declining. 

By far, the greatest number of Apache speakers live on the San Carlos and Fort Apache reservations. In 2011, the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s Language Preservation Program began its outreach to the 14,000 tribal members, of whom only 20 percent of whom still speak the language fluently. 

Most children now learn Apache as a second language, in elementary and high school. 

“Immersion works when there are many elders and few kids,” explains Willem. “But what we have now, in these cultures, is the opposite of that.”

Second language learning requires qualified teachers and age-appropriate curricula. Willem also favors Total Physical Response (TPR) as part of the learning program, and believes technology has a role to play.. 

“Immersion plays a part,” says Willem, “but a variety of approaches are needed.”

Writing it down

Prior to the 1960s, the Apache language did not exist in written form. A spelling system was developed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now known as S.I.L. International), in an effort to translate the bible into Apache.

“They are a Christian organization,” Willem notes, “ but they do a lot more with literacy than with proselytizing.”

He made his own orthographic contribution to the spelling system by introducing the mid-tone, marking it a dash above the vowel. High tones uses an acute accent and the low tone is not marked. 

“I’m really serious about getting the spelling correct,” he says. 

While controversy persists regarding the documentation of oral languages, Willem sees value in it. All language, including the English language, he notes, were at one time, oral languages.

“I was born speaking Apache,” Joycelene says, but since she was schooled in English, she didn’t learn to read and write Apache until she took a college course from a native speaker. 

“I see literacy, not as the main thing, but as a tool for helping preserve the language,” Willem says, “to preserve the culture and help preserve the literature.”

Joycelene agrees. Although many of the stories and myths have been written down into English, both agree a lot is lost in translation. 

“There are many parts of Apache culture—storytelling, singing, ceremonies—that can only be carried out in the Apache language,” Willem says. “The literary quality and verbal art disappear when these works are translated into English.” 


A practical grammar for San Carlos Apache


Willem’s book, provides an introduction to the pronunciation and spelling of San Carlos Apache and represents a huge step forward in the effort to document and preserve the language.  

The book was written over a 10-year period, at first with the assistance of Phillip Goode, a renowned native language expert, until his death in 1999. Their research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of Arizona.

Published in Germany in 2006, A Practical Grammar of the San Carlos Apache Language, is intended for undergraduate university students and high school language teachers with some training in linguistics. Sold mostly to university libraries, the San Carlos schools recently ordered 80 copies.

The book includes 20 graded lessons on morphological and syntactic topics, grammatical explanations, example sentences, exercises for non-native speakers, and practice dialogues with translations. 

The author humbly refers to the 569-page tomb as a “drop in the bucket,” but it is the most comprehensive documentation of the Western Apache grammar and the only professional work published in the past 30 years. 

A global inspiration

The United Nations (UN) has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages in an effort to raise awareness of endangered languages and celebrate revitalization programs. 

It was Willem’s inspiration to spend this year in Globe, Arizona. As part of his work for the Language Conservancy, he traveled in June to Billings, Montana to study the Crow language and then to Fort Yukon, north of the polar circle, to study the Gwich’in language. He will live the rest of the year in Globe, to further his collaboration with Apache educators and study of the Apache language.


“It’s long-term process,“ Willem remarks. 


Some of the long-term objectives include dictionaries that address all dialects, teaching materials for all ages and programs that train speakers to become teachers. 


“There’s a misconception that you must be a fluent speaker to teach,” says Willem. “If you’re a beginner speaker, a non-fluent speaker, you can teach. If you’re really well-prepared, you can help other people learn the language.” 



  1. Thank you for highlighting the work of Dr. Willem de Reuse! We’re grateful for his contributions and partnership with those who are dedicated to the study and preservation of the Apache language.

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