New Native Language App Starts Small, With Animal Names in Four Tongues

A new American Indian language app hit the iTunes store January 20 that features translations of animal names from English to Diné, Lakota, Mvskoke and Ponca. The menu screen offers a choice of four languages. Once a language is chosen, a short list of animals appears from which to choose. Clicking on the animal produces a photo of the animal, the English and Native language word for that animal and a button that allows the user to hear the word pronounced in the Native language.

But some users have responded negatively on iTunes reviews. One commentator, spec24, wrote on February 3: “14 animals and that’s your app? Come on, do these languages some justice.” There are 14 animals represented in the app in the Lakota language; 18 for Mvskoke, 19 for Ponca and 20 for Diné.

Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) created the app and the group’s executive director, Shirley K. Sneve, Sicangu Lakota, responded to the negative comments saying the app is “a simple start.”

“We chose to start the app with animals based off research of other apps that have had success with reaching a younger audience,” explained Eric Martin, NAPT interactive media specialist. He said this app was designed and launched the same way many apps are—with room for improvement. “The model for launching a new app is to start small, get feedback and improve the app for the next release.”

Other naysayers criticized the Lakota language section, which was recorded by Phyllis Stone, a descendant of Chief Iron Shell, a peace chief of the Rosebud Sioux. Some of those critiques were harsh. One reviewer said, “It would’ve been nice if they got someone who speaks Lakota to record the Lakota section… the Lakota is just wrong. Do not use this as a learning tool. It will only harm your language education.”

Another wrote: “I grew up with my grandparents whose first language was Lakota, and the person speaking Lakota was…how should I say…BAD. Sorry, but you should get someone who actually speaks the language correctly.”

Stone, who is a lecturer with the Nebraska Humanities Council and a Sundancer, said she knew participating in this project would leave her open to criticism, but it’s nothing she can’t handle. She says she learned the language from her grandparents. Her Great Grandma Annie Kills Enemy Bordeaux was her first teacher since she would only speak Lakota. Stone also learned from her grandfather, who taught her when her parents refused to teach her their language. “They were feeling backlashes from being Indian and my mom did not want me to go through that,” Stone explains.

Stone continued her Lakota language education at Sinte Gleska University, a tribal college in Mission, South Dakota. She understands how some may interpret her manner of speaking the language as incorrect. “Probably I mix the old way of speaking and the ‘classroom-and-book’ way of speaking. And then I tend to almost over-enunciate because as a teacher that’s what we do—enunciate,” she says.

One of Stone’s teachers at Sinte Gleska in the 1990s was Albert White Hat Sr., who told her that “everyone speaks our language differently,” depending on dialects, nuances, colloquialisms and how they learned the language.

NAPT feels that could be the cause of the discontent from some Lakota users. “Our guess is that they might say that the Lakota sounds wrong because, as you know, the Lakota language is a diverse language with different groups of Lakota pronouncing words differently. We are working to find out their exact concerns and address them,” Martin says.

Despite the negative comments, Stone still sees the positive attributes of offering this app on iTunes: “As Indian people we realize that our languages are not usually taught in schools or colleges, except some of the tribal colleges, so those of us who can need to preserve the languages by speaking them and encouraging others—other Indian people hopefully.”

Other users of the app also see what NAPT is trying to do. One says in an iTunes review that they “appreciate anything and everything positive that supports our Native tongues. This is a great app for us Native people to rally around. Let’s make it stronger and better together.” The same reviewer, in response to the negative reviews, said others should “go out and make apps for your respective tongues. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, so long as it’s a step in the right direction.”

And that’s just what this app is, a step, or a “gateway,” as Sneve calls it. “NAPT has the option to open-up the code of the app to tribes so that they may add to it and expand its content,” Sneve says. “First though, we need to gauge interest in the app. This app can be a gateway to Native languages but it is contingent upon funding.”

The app is free and can be found by searching “Native Language App” in the iTunes store.