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Military Technology Used for Language Revitalization

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BUFFALO, N.Y. – Several generations of American Indians from the 1930s to the 1970s were sent to U.S. government boarding schools, where they were not allowed to speak their Native languages.

Native students of that era who spoke their language were severely punished.

“My mother was part of that boarding school era where Indian kids were made to be ashamed to be Indian,” said Cherokee businessman Don Thornton.

Now Thornton uses a U.S. government-protected technology to help revitalize the Native languages that were decimated during that era. The Phraselator P2, developed by defense contractor Voxtec International in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, is a handheld unit that allows the user to translate spoken English words and phrases into any Native language.

Phraselator P2 holds tens of thousands of phrases, words, stories and songs in one machine.

“It’s like an entire language program in the palm of your hand,” said Thornton.

Tens of millions went into product development, funded mainly by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research group that developed innovative technologies such as Global Positioning Systems, virtual reality and the Internet.

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“You don’t need to be a linguist to operate it or program it,” said Thornton. “The system is so simple to use I can teach anyone to use it in 10 seconds. We sell tools for the average tribal member who wants to learn their language. There are no contracts to sign and no issues with ownership of the recordings.”

Since early 2005, dozens of Native speakers have begun recording their languages onto the hi-tech machines. Many are among the last speakers of their languages.

“After I played with it I cried,” said Jane Dumas, a Kumeyaay elder from southern California. “This will help save our language.”

Thornton Media Inc. is the only language tool company in the world devoted to American Indian languages and 85 percent of clients reorder within one year. TMI has nearly sold out its line of kids’ language toys and recently added its 35th tribe to its client list. In the launching of the Phraselator Translation System, TMI has provided on-site training to Native language teachers and speakers in widespread areas of North America at minimal costs, often barely making a profit due to travel costs. They have traveled to reservations in California, Oklahoma, Montana, North Carolina, Alaska and Canada to record with often the last native speakers of their languages. During their journeys, many heart-warming stories were told.

“It is a great tool that can give us our whole world in our hand,” said Ken Tuffy Helpeson, a Nakota language teacher in Montana. “This is a very interesting tool with tremendous potential. It has the ability to focus on our language and how precise it is,” said Keith Weasel Head, from the Kainai Board of Education in Alberta, Canada.

Thornton had presented his new product at many Native language conferences nationwide to great enthusiasm.

“It’s ironic,” said Thornton, “that this tool, created by the U.S. government, may help to save the languages that they attempted to wipe out for generations.”