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Embracing Technology to Teach Native Language

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – As many American Indian tribes struggle to close the generational gap between traditions, culture and language, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is embracing technology as a way of teaching the Mohawk language to their Native youth.

The tribe, largely due to the guidance of Carole Ross, the Mohawk language instructor at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, has been embracing state-of-the-art methods to teach language to the youth through such platforms as computer language centers, Rosetta Stone language software programs and even a game cartridge for use in the popular Nintendo DSi handheld game system.

To Ross, it was all too apparent that Native youth were using computers, computer software and video games on a daily basis. She decided to embrace what the youth of today were doing in order to introduce them to their language. “My granddaughter says pretty much the whole school has a DSi.”

Ross talked about the technological offerings by the tribe to help tribal members learn Mohawk, specifically, the Can 8 online learning system, the Nintendo DSi and Rosetta Stone Mohawk language software.

The Can 8 computerized language system, which was created by the Akwesasne Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit organization that delivers employment and training services to the Mohawk community, “an interactive, multimedia tool used extensively for the instruction of most languages around the world and a virtual language learning system that provides students and community members alike with the ability to learn and reinforce their own language learning at their own comfort level.”

Ross sees Can 8, a program that teaches her grandchildren, as “really amazing.” “There are different speakers; someone says the word three times when the learner is ready to say the word. You click on record, and then you can hear yourself say it and compare it to the original speaker. There is also a picture of the word. It is being developed and updated as we go – Karen Mitchell founded the program.

“Our language is the very key to our survival as a people,” said Mitchell, the executive director at AEDA Employment & Training Service. “Our language was given to us by the Creator to communicate and to pass down the stories, values and customs of our people for future generations. The objective of the Kanien’kéha Language Program is to preserve what is in danger of being lost and to retrieve and restore what has already been lost. By focusing on the language, we hope that our students will recognize and be proud of their past, as well as obtain increased self-esteem and pride in their living as Kanien’kéha people and to use it in the workplace and home as their first language.”

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Ross also mentioned how she has worked with other Mohawk tribal members and Thornton Media, Inc. a Cherokee company that specializes in assisting tribes in creating software and gaming programs to teach Native languages.

Don Thornton, owner of Thornton Media Inc. works with tribes by providing “Language Pal,” a Nintendo DSi friendly program that can program audio recordings, electronic flashcards, multiple choice games and tens of thousands of audio files with a searchable database. The software is not an official Nintendo title, but it is created by an authorized Nintendo developer.

According to Thornton, “Our approach to language tools has always been to make language learning fun. Your kids will be playing with video games anyway; they might as well be learning their language.”

Ross also lauded Rosetta Stone, which is available to tribal members. “It is a different Mohawk speaking community with a little bit different dialect, but having done the standardization. Mohawk communities can now write in a standardized form.”

Though some may criticize veering away from traditions of the past, According to Ross, the methodology of teaching the language is not important – it is just important that it is accomplished.

Ross cited a quote from a pamphlet distributed by the Indigenous Language Institute that she called beautiful. “Language is a direct reflection of cultural values and tradition. Once the language disappears, or begins to disappear, efforts to maintain a culture, and its associated values, become threatened.”

“Our language is a gift from our Creator, if we don’t learn it. We cannot hear the voices of our ancestors,” Ross said. “If we don’t use it, we are not fulfilling our responsibility, and we don’t give life to it. We are neglecting to perform our duties; the Creator has created for us in this world through our languages. If we don’t speak it, we don’t have a world of our own.”