Technology Creates New Opportunities For Language Revitilization

Jul 22, 2016

Many native languages are considered endangered, ­with few first speakers left to pass down the language to a new generation. But, a new generation of young people fueled by technology​ is making an impact. 

The famed song by Chubby Checker encouraging dancers all over to get down and do “The Twist” plays in the background as dancers from the Cherokee Pride school in NE Oklahoma move and groove around. Today, the song isn't being sung by the 1950's icon,  it’s being sung by students in their native language of Cherokee.

Native American students travel from all over to compete in the annual Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair held on the University of Oklahoma campus. Contestants create animated videos, sing songs, tell stories­ and some even design skateboards imprinted with their Native language. Today, students face off to see who can tell a better story without forgetting words or stumbling over phrases ­like Jay Fife from the Creek Nation. He won first place in the storytelling contest for a story about stickball.

Jay Fife, a citizen of the Creek Nation. He won first place for a story he told about stickball in Creek.
Credit Allison Herrera

"I will give credit to other tribes...they have apps. They have audio dictionaries," said Fife. But, he went on to explain that learning language can't just be about devices and tech.

"We're making progress to modernize the teaching of the language. It's really within your family. You have to have a desire to learn."

The language fair and the enthusiasm displayed by parents, students and teachers is a far cry from a generation of Native people who went to boarding schools and were discouraged or even punished when speaking in their native tongue. That led to a loss of culture and identity among many Native Americans.

“I always say that all of humanity is diminished with the loss of a language,  " says Dan Swan. He’s the curator of Ethnology and interim curator of languages at the Sam Noble Museum.

“Every language is a window into a different way of seeing the world. It’s a route to the accumulated knowledge of those cultures and communities.”

And for the young people at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, access to that accumulated knowledge is inextricably tied to ­ technology. For example, language ­learning apps for smart phones and the ability to text in native languages. And while some people in Swan’s generation may bemoan young people’s incessant texting habits­ he’s not one of them. In fact, he says it’s helped many tribes with their language revitalization efforts.

“ This is just one more tool for communities to access. But if we can put language and language learning in the pocket of every student via their cell phone­ that’s a wonderful opportunity that cannot be ignored.”

One of the most important tools to get that language learning into students’ pockets is called Unicode­, a digital language system compatible with any internet connected device ­like an i­phone, computer or kindle. Both the Cherokee Nation and the Osage nation have collaborated with techies to create characters in Osage and Cherokee so people can text using these native languages. One of the people behind the development of the Unicode for Osage is Herman Mongrain Lookout. He’s studied and taught the language for more than 40 years and is the master language teacher for the Osage Nation.

Watch our mini-doc on "Mogri" Lookout here:

For someone in his 70’s this tech doesn’t totally come naturally, but he’s realized the need to embrace it in order to pass along what he knows. So he, like Dan Swan, realized that in order to teach language to young people he has use something he knows young people use to communicate every day..

After years of working to create the orthography Osages use to write their language, he started to explore new ways to teach the language . He’s introduced online and streaming language courses in Pawhuska, Oklahoma­the seat of the Osage nation­ to teach folks who can’t be there in person. And he encourages using online dictionaries and translation apps.

 “I used to have boxes full of papers and I’d have to go in there and dig. But computers, it’s great. I can just say, ‘give me a word for tse,’ and all these words come up. We got online learning now. We know that just streaming something out 'aint gonna help ‘em learn. You gotta have synchronous...so one on one. And they can come back and they can say something and they can get hands on,” explained Lookout.

Back at the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, students demonstrate their singing skills for the judges. A trio of young men belt out a soulful Kiowa hymn... it’s one that is sometimes sung at funerals or for someone who might need a few extra prayers. It’s a song that’s been passed down through generations of Kiowa ­ in the traditional way... ­ orally. But for the kids singing it now, and for their kids, the future of their language will be a mix of custom, and customized tech. ­ 

Invisible Nations is brought to you by KOSU and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.