Language revitalization's 'race against time' goes high-tech

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SANTE FE, N.M. - When the Institute for the Preservation of Original Languages of the Americas changed its name to the Indigenous Language Institute in 1997, it also changed its focus from preservation to revitalization.

''I like to see that as the turning point,'' said Inee Yang Slaughter, executive director of ILI, a nonprofit Native organization.

''That's when we really started to take on specific projects and programs in the belief that recaptured languages are not just preserved artifacts of the culture, but are living languages that are actually used, and grow. That is our goal - to see languages become part of everyday life. It's a huge goal, but the only way a language can survive.''

The belief that a language is not a living language unless it is spoken drives the ILI's goal to help create speakers of Native languages. And, in the belief that computers are excellent language teaching tools, the institute has developed easy-to-use technology to facilitate community-based language revitalization initiatives, working with Native communities, organizations and individuals, and at the same time promoting public awareness of the importance of regenerating indigenous languages.

Native languages were almost completely lost through the U.S. government's deliberate policy beginning in the late 1800s of taking Indian children away from their families and putting them in boarding schools often hundreds of miles away from home to live, work and be ''educated'' in English. Among other abuses, the children were beaten if they spoke their Native languages.

It was the elders who continued to speak the Native tongues in the privacy of their homes that saved the languages from total obliteration.

Rebuilding a Native language involves the transformation of an oral tradition into the written word.

''Every community decides for itself how they wish to do the writing part and many have worked with linguists who have introduced certain standardized writing systems used by linguists throughout the world, and others have chosen to do it purely phonetically using the English alphabet, but using their own ways to record what sounds best to them. We honor all of their choices,'' Slaughter said.

Regardless of how a tribe chooses to write its language, the spoken word is still crucial, Slaughter said.

''Really, the most important thing is to record the sound, because once it's written down no one can really tell how it's supposed to sound unless the speaker actually speaks it,'' Slaughter said.

Before developing and launching its language learning technology, the institute conducted a unique three-year survey in the field, collecting data about the state of affairs in language revitalization. ILI teams visited 52 programs around the country and found both success stories and challenges.

The institute then published a series of booklets outlining best and worst practices so that language workers did not have to reinvent the wheel or use methods that had proven to be unsuccessful.

The survey yielded a wealth of other useful information.

''One of the things we found was that indigenous language is not being transferred in the traditional way, which is just in everyday life and everyday conversation, because English has become a very dominant language even in families. So now in many cases Native language is taught as a second language,'' Slaughter said.

The survey also found a lack of teachers or training opportunities for teachers because even if a community has fluent speakers, they are not as effective in teaching if they lack training in language instruction.

The survey also revealed a shortage of printed materials to be used for the teaching and learning, and as reinforcement and support in the home and community. Available materials were handmade and therefore limited in content and number.

''What we came away with was we decided there was something ILI can do that other organizations or institutes are not addressing, which was to help bring the technology into the hands of people who are actually doing the language work, for two reasons: One is they have the Native speakers at their disposal in the communities, and, two, many of the successful materials are developed based on imagery and ideas and content that is culturally based and culturally appropriate,'' Slaughter said.

ILI's technology includes specially designed Native-language keyboards and supporting software that can be used easily with common programs such as Microsoft Word and Publisher, scanning and sound technology to produce illustrated storybooks, animation, slide shows and videos with music.

The keyboards can be customized for any number of languages - and there are dozens, if not hundreds of languages - and even accommodate diacritical marks if a tribe has chosen to use them in the written version of its Native tongue.

The institute takes its technology and technicians on the road and holds three-day intensive workshops around the country to accommodate as many people as possible. Participants take the software home to be used for further language learning and teaching.

But language revitalization here is ''a race against time,'' Slaughter said, because speakers of Native languages are dying faster than new speakers are learning the languages.

''We're pulling together ideas, approaches, research and information that points to best practices of indigenous languages revitalization in an effective and timely way, because we don't have the luxury of experimenting,'' Slaughter said.

A regional ''Storytelling with Technology Workshop'' at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida in May drew around 75 tribal members from California, Nevada, North Dakota, Florida, Louisiana, Connecticut and Maine.

Among them was Seminole member Jade Braswell, a teacher at the tribe's cultural education program.

''I thought it was wonderful. I really enjoyed it. We actually brought the program back and we're making more materials. I have more questions now that we're back and using it, but we've been in contact with a gentleman from ILI that is helping us,'' Braswell said.

Braswell was particularly interested to learn the movie-making or slide show-making skills the workshop offered.

Also attending the workshop was Lorene Gopher, a fluent Creek speaker and the director of the Seminole's Cultural Education Program since 1995.

''I've been in this thing for so long that I'm ready to learn to do different things to teach this language, so that's why I went to that workshop - to learn what are some of the newest way to teach the language,'' Gopher said.

There are signs that language revitalization is getting the attention it needs and deserves, Slaughter said.

''The main responsibility lies in the communities and the people who are willing to take it on and we're encouraged that the number is growing and the enthusiasm is growing and interest is growing in the young people. I just saw a Navajo rap group who specifically focuses on using their language. Young people listen to it and go to the elders and say, 'Can you help me understand what they're saying?' And the elders listen and say, 'Oh, it's saying you have to follow your ways and learn your language, your culture,''' Slaughter said.

Some people might frown upon rap music, but not ILI, Slaughter said.

''We want to see language everywhere. That's our goal and our focus,'' Slaughter said.

To view ''Ohkay Owingeh: Village of the Strong,'' an example of a video storybook created by Native language speakers who attended an ILI workshop, go to www.ilinative.org.