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New system helps students learn the Lakota language

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LOWER BRULE, S.D. - For some people, unless they have heard a word before, its proper pronunciation can be quite difficult.

Such can be the case with languages that never had a written version but are now translated into printed form. For anyone who has studied a second language, the difficulty is learning when and how to use the correct tense, gender, verb conjugation and pronunciation.

The Lakota language - and any other American Indian language - is no different. Pronunciation, the proper use of modifiers and knowledge of sentence structure is important when it comes to saving a language that was never written. The intent is to preserve the language as close to its original form as possible.

Earl Bullhead, a Lakota educator on the Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota, has developed a phonetics chart that is easy to follow and offers proper pronunciation. He also has a step-by-step approach that offers students a chance to learn not just a core word, but when other letters or words are added to make it plural or gender-qualified, or when it takes on a slightly different meaning.

Bullhead has developed a system that includes 10 lessons that show the use of conjugations so that the student will be able to visualize the word. The system includes special modifiers that change the meaning of the word from, for example, first person to second or third person.

He sets up the courses in 15-week increments of 10 lessons each. He has also, with help from technical experts, developed a computer program that allows students to overlay diacritical markings onto letters to change the sound of the letter. The student can also add words and letters to other words to change person, tense or gender.

Bullhead explained his program to teachers during the recent South Dakota Indian Education Summit in Rapid City.

South Dakota, which has mandated that the Lakota language and culture be taught in the state's public schools beginning with the current school year, is close to accepting Bullhead's system. The language in the public schools most generally will be taught by non-Lakota speakers who will be trained with this system. They will also receive help from Lakota speakers who will, on a part-time basis, be present in classrooms.

In the Great Plains, it is estimated that 30 percent of all members of the various tribes speak their language. On the Navajo reservation the percentage is higher, but in other parts of the country the indigenous languages are almost extinct.

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The Plains tribes are not in jeopardy of losing their languages because there are many people who are focused on teaching the language to not just elementary, middle and high school students, but to adults as well.

''I started the [computer] program to put emphasis on certain syllables as a way of teaching the kids the words and how to write them,'' Bullhead said.

''This will make the best of two languages. We now have Lakota III students reading Ella Deloria texts,'' he said.

Bullhead said that he rewards students with stories and songs when they correctly use the Lakota language and learn anything new about the language. Usually his stories involve humor and a message.

The students are also encouraged to research some of the original words that have changed over time.

The system Bullhead developed teaches the words by visual image, which is how the language developed.

''They have to think before they can speak,'' he said.

''The language is part of the success for students. With the language comes a cultural way of teaching. It shows respect for the student and for the teachers, and that's a key to learning.''

Bullhead was awarded the Teacher of the Year award by Crazy Horse Memorial, and received the award at the annual Native American Day celebration Oct. 8 at the memorial.