Until recently, preserving the languages of our ancestors has traditionally been an extremely daunting task. While missionaries and scholars have written books about the Native languages they encountered and audio recordings of elders speaking have existed for decades, these resources can be difficult to acquire and use to actually teach a language. Some people have successfully achieved fluency by becoming an apprentice to an elder in their community, by taking classes or enrolling in an immersion school. For many Natives who live great distances away from their communities, these options were nearly impossible.
Language revitalization efforts are even more pressing at the moment with many of the elders who are fluent in these languages passing away at an alarming rate. While languages with tens of thousands of speakers like Cree, Ojibwe, and Navajo (Diné) have a lower risk of dying out anytime soon, some communities with only a handful of Native speakers left are in a frenzy to record elders speaking, and write books for future generations before these leaders pass on.
With the Internet and modern technology, Native Americans have access to an abundance of resources to preserve and learn their languages. Many of today’s younger generation already own smartphones, tablets and computers, and are intimately familiar with the technology required to access these resources. If we want our children to keep their traditional languages alive and pass them on to future generations, we need to meet them in the middle using media distribution methods they are familiar with.
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A variety of companies, organizations and startups have invested a lot of time and money into preserving Native American languages. While the larger companies have focused on languages with a large population base in order to recuperate profits, smaller startups and organizations have lent a helping hand to those communities that sometimes lack the resources or expertise to develop useful materials.
One of the most well-known language learning companies in the world, Rosetta Stone has partnered with various tribes to develop a version of their software to bolster language preservation efforts. The success of this company lies in its marketing department, and while their efforts are not misplaced, their methodology seems more suited for acquiring vocabulary rather than true fluency. In any case, Rosetta Stone has worked with the Navajo, Chitimacha, Mohawk, Inuttitut, and Iñupiak tribes to create personalized versions of their software.
While Pimsleur has only produced an audio version of their program for Ojibwe, it’s worth mentioning since their method can be adapted to any language. The problem with this program is how expensive and limited it is. The full 30-lesson version currently sells for roughly $300 and is limited because they have only developed a course for one Native American language. Their method is sound though, focusing on more commonly used words and phrases first and utilizing Native speakers with clear pronunciation and repetition.
Ogoki Learning Systems Inc.
A fully Native American owned and operated company, Ogoki Learning Systems Inc. has created language learning apps for a multitude of languages including Saulteaux, Cree, Yurok, L’nui’suti, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Arikara. The beauty of the apps created by this company is in their true cultural sensitivity and understanding. Some of the apps offered are free, whereas others can be installed for a small fee. While free apps are more likely to be downloaded and used, it is understandable to have to charge a small amount for these resources as the amount of investment required to develop an app can be substantial.
Administration for Native Americans—U.S. Government
The Administration for Native Americans does not directly produce language learning materials, but they have issued grants and funding to tribes looking for additional resources in order to produce their own language resources. Under the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, signed into law in 2006 under President George W. Bush, tribes can apply for funding to develop immersion schools and language learning resources. The Lac du Flambeau Band of Wisconsin received funding in order to produce 24 lessons as podcasts, which are another learning method that will be discussed later.
These are just a few of the companies and organizations actively working to preserve our languages. It is amazing to see such large-scale Native American language revitalization efforts using modern technology, but it can be difficult for smaller tribes to get the funding and manpower necessary to develop such polished products. This is the first in a three part series of articles, where we discuss tools available for more grassroots language preservation and distribution.
This story was originally published January 8, 2015.
Trey Saddler is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana. He is currently attending Salish Kootenai College in Montana and is expected to finish his Bachelor of Science in Life Science with a focus in Environmental Health in June. He is an EPA Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellow, and has interned with the EPA, NIEHS, and at the SKC Environmental Chemistry Laboratory. He studies Native American languages in his free time.