SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The decline of American Indian languages over the past
century has been precipitous and many are now faced with extinction. Though
several different efforts are currently under way utilizing about every
method imaginable, a Cherokee businessman is opting for a more high-tech
Don Thornton, 43, co-operates a video production company in California
called NDN TV. While the primary focus of NDN TV is to generate an array of
productions for various entities including the U.S. government, it is his
side business that is beginning to attract attention.
Thornton is offering two high tech interactive products, one for children
and another for adults that act as linguistic teaching tools.
The first is a compact child's toy called the NDN Linguist. Thornton
describes it as a "Playskool" type of toy in which a cartridge, in the
shape of a specific figurine, is inserted on the top of the main component,
which in turn produces the word associated with that character in the
language programmed into the cartridge.
"It might sound complicated but in reality a two-year-old can figure it out
in no time," said Thornton.
Currently about a dozen American Indian languages are available including
Cherokee and Luiseno, whose tribal governments have bought their own
versions of the product. However, Thornton predicts that the number of
American Indian languages available will increase as more tribes show
The characters are also custom made for each language to provide the child
culturally-appropriate symbols. The NDN Linguist sells for a little under
$10,000 for the first 25 machines, but Thornton points out that the price
drops quickly for machines beyond that number.
Although the price may seem steep on the face of it, several factors also
play a role including tailoring the product for specific tribes which means
there are often a different set of figurines that must be manufactured.
The adult product has an almost cartoonish name, the Phraselator, but there
is nothing trite about the product itself. Originally developed by the U.S.
military, Thornton acquired a license to market and distribute the product
from a company named Vox Tech which manufactures them for the U.S
government. The Phraselator, which resembles a hand held video game, can
contain up to 30,000 phrases in any given language with CD-quality sound.
Thornton believes the Phraselator can serve a two-fold purpose in Indian
country. On a recent trip to visit family in the Cherokee heartland of
Talequah, Okla., Thornton and his 85-year-old grandmother, a native speaker
of Cherokee, managed to record 500 phrases in half a day. He claims that as
many as 800 phrases can be recorded (by the Phraselator) in half a day. The
product can be easily adapted to any tribal language and Thornton believes
that it can play a vital role in language revitalization.
Currently Thornton is trying to market the product to tribes with casinos
and hospitality resorts. In addition to storing Native languages, Thornton
also believes that the Phraselator can be an important business tool for
tribal casinos because of the ethnically-diverse crowds that they attract.
For example, Thornton claims that the U.S. military has had a large degree
of success using the Phraselator during the current Iraq occupation for
quick translations in the field.
Thornton believes the Phraselator can achieve a similar degree of success
in a business setting. He points out that many tribal casinos have specific
ethnic events where the Phraselator can be used for hospitality to large
groups of non-English speakers.
Additionally, Thornton believes the Phraselator can be used for casino
security and first aid for non-English speaking patrons.
The Phraselator has only recently been added to Thornton's products for
sale and he is starting an effort to market it to tribal governments.
Because of its military origins the Phraselator is also designed to
withstand a variety of conditions and maladies. Thornton lists several
severe conditions that leave the Phraselator unscathed such as standing in
the rain - although he said that it cannot be submerged - and having a
Humvee - another military product that received a civilian license - drive
Ultimately, Thornton is not under the illusion that these products alone
will provide a panacea or cure-all regarding the ills of language decline,
but thinks they can help to stem the decline.
One of the problems with language decline, observed Thornton, is that the
elderly people who have knowledge of the language are unable to provide the
intense language immersion younger learners need. His products can help
with practical application once the lesson is finished.
Thornton's business partner at NDN TV, Anita Dragan, who is a transplanted
Seneca living in Northern California, concurs.
"While I don't think that [tribal languages] can be as vital and important
as they once were, the goal should be to preserve and revitalize and that's
what this [the language products] are all about," observed Dragan.
While she is not directly involved in the language product side of the
business, she talks enthusiastically about the products.
"The bottom line is that these are really cool products."
Amy Minniear, who works with the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians Cultural
Resources Center, echoes this sentiment. Pechanga is one of three Luiseno
tribes that purchased the NDN Linguist.
"You mean the toy with the little figurines? I really love it. It's a very
For more information, visit http://ndntv.com/ or call Don Thornton at (818)