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Indigenous languages April 26, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.

zepeda   Hurry. Get people you know who are in their 70s or 80s to sit in front of a microphone or a video camera and let them tell their stories. You may not think much of the stories right now, but someday they will be national treasures. It is not a new idea but it is a good one and we need to be reminded on occasion. My father has amazing stories of wandering through Europe after the war ended. He still describes the work of removing and returning bodies from the beaches of Normandy many months after fighting had ended.

While sitting in the qualifying examination for a student today, one of the participants, a scholar of indigenous languages, raised an interesting point. Too often, she had seen the promise of computer technology fall flat as a way of enriching or teaching indigenous languages.

This scholar, one of 3,000 or so speakers of the Tohono O’odham dialect and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, relayed how very often the computer programmers were simply putting up numbers and colors on the screen and having them fly around.

The student shared her experience of watching a student play with the word “butterfly” in Navajo. She made it multicolored, changed the font and the size, and did whatever else she could do to play with her newfound word. I wondered if seeing the word on the screen would validate her fledgling understanding of her culture and native language.

There is a great deal of validity in what both the scholar and the student brought to the discussion of indigenous language. At the heart of it there is the keen sense that both expressed that if computers are to be used to teach the language the experience cannot be passive or static. There must be interaction. The experience must be organic.

I brought up the wiki and the blog as a tool for sharing information and elaborating on a rich database over time. There was some hesitation that elders would spend much time interacting with a keyboard to create a blog or a web site. I wonder what might lie at the heart of that levity. Perhaps it would be the lack of keyboarding skills or a general lack of exposure to computers.

I think given the opportunity, perhaps with voice-to-text software, and framed as an opportunity to tell stories for posterity, you might see something quite remarkable happen.



1. Susan Penfield - June 3, 2006

I’ll venture a comment here. Certainly there is a flurry of attempts to apply technology to Indigenous languages. Some of these have resulted in more training for the speakers, but less help for the language than imagined. But then any revitalization efforts that begin with just simply vocabulary — colors, animal names, etc — but do not move beyond that to active verbs, phrases and broader discourse, don’t have a huge impact on actually saving the language.

Technology is still new to this fields and recent explorations, as you suggest in the use of multi-media software — are just beginning to show promise. As access to Indigenous communities improves, and as elders and others become more comfortable with technology, I think we will see an acceleration and a broadening of what technology can offer to this field. It will always, however, just be one piece of the puzzle needed for true revitalization of any language.

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