Modern tool is utilized in the rebuilding of languages

KAHNAWAKE, Quebec – The creators of a popular immersion language-learning software program called Rosetta Stone are marketing their services under an endangered language program geared toward revitalizing languages.

Under the program, indigenous communities contract with Fairfield Language Technologies Inc. of Harrisonburg, Va., to develop language learning software. The communities provide the language expertise and images to use. The voices on the programs are those of fluent local speakers.

Currently, four programs are under development: for the Kahnawake Mohawk community near Montreal, (a recently completed program), the NANA Regional Corporation in Alaska and its Inupiat shareholders, the Labrador Inuit Association and the Seminole Tribe in Miccosukee, Fla.

“The way that we teach languages through our software has been very successful,” said Marion Bittinger of Fairfield Language Technologies. Communities contacted the company for help, and the Endangered Language Program was born.

Rather than simply a grammar- or writing-based teaching tool, the Rosetta Stone system harkens to how children first learn to speak: associating new words with images of situations or objects. The program uses thousands of images and interactive lessons to prompt students to understand spoken and written words and phrases. A demonstration of how the immersion concept works can be found at www.rosettastone.com.

The name Rosetta Stone was inspired by the stone tablet found in the northern Egyptian city formerly called Rosetta. The tablet, inscribed with three writing systems, including hieroglyphics, unlocked the meaning of those ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

Unlike some teaching methods, Rosetta Stone does not translate from one language to another, so English, for example, is not used to teach Kanien’keha, the language of the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk, or “People of the Flint”). Thus Kanien’keha words don’t lose possible aspects of their meaning in the learning process.

“The language that you’re learning stands on its own feet,” Bittinger said.

This particular Rosetta Stone software, released this past spring, was the first completed under the Endangered Language Program.

North America once had about 300 indigenous languages, according to the company. Today, with only about 25 of those languages spoken fluently by children and others already lost, an additional 150 languages may disappear with the current generation of elders. The loss of many languages can be traced to the polices of both the United States and Canada to eliminate languages for First Nations children forced into boarding or residential schools.

Once the programs are developed and Rosetta Stone assists with training in the use of the software, the language program is sold and distributed by the community.

The visual images in the computer programs are of people and places from the communities themselves.

This is a particularly pleasing element of the system, said Kaherakwas Donna Goodleaf, executive director of the Kanien’kehaka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa Language and Cultural Centre and manager of the Rosetta Stone program for the Kahnawake community.

Incorporating pictures and images from the community make it more culturally relevant, Goodleaf said. “What is helpful is that you’re using images, you’re using pictures of our own people.”

Of the about 8,000 people from the Kahnawake community, some 10 percent are fluent speakers of Kanien’keha.

“Language is such a direct link to who we are as a people – language plays a very vital role. It informs our world view of who we are and connects us to our land and all the history that comes with it,” Goodleaf said.

“To ensure that we continue to survive as distinct indigenous nations, the Kanien’kehaka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa is taking an aggressive approach in developing and promoting new language immersion programs for our community.”

Rosetta Stone is just one of the language tools the community has chosen. In 1999, at the encouragement of local elders, the community council passed a language law that requires use of Kanien’keha in all educational, work and business and community settings. The cultural center produces two local cable network shows aired in the language and 90 percent of the community has this cable network, Goodleaf said. In fact, the children’s puppet show program, “Tota Tanon Ohkwa:ri,” has been so popular that the cultural center is putting it on DVDs for the community and schools to use and for other Mohawk communities to access.

For the fifth year, the cultural center is about to offer a nine-month adult language-immersion program, Ratiwennahni:rats. Former students who are parents were encouraged to set up their own parent language nest group.

The cultural center is setting up a computer lab so community members can access a language-learning experience designed to meet individual or group needs. “This is where the Rosetta Stone plays in,” she added.

Hope for the future of this voice of the people runs high for Goodleaf, who sees a strong shift in language preservation and usage in the community thanks to the efforts of parents, schools, leadership and businesses.

“In 20 years, we’ll have the majority of our community members communicating in our language, whereby Kahnahwakero:non will be speaking, reading and writing in our language.”

Those efforts are succeeding and shined through at the cultural center’s annual language variety-night show in which schools from the Kahnawake and other Kanien’kehaka communities do skits or entertainment in Kanien’keha. It was so beautiful and hopeful that evening to hear and see preschool children in the audience talking to one another in Kanien’keha, Goodleaf remembered.

The joy was especially felt by community elders, she said. “They were so happy to see these children walking around and talking to each other in our language.”