Students and educators will have technology to thank for allowing them to experience the fading languages of several American Indian tribes in years to come.
In early May, a group of Comanche tribal elders met with linguists in an attempt to capture and preserve the Comanche language through a series of recorded speaking sessions. The informal chat touched on many topics, including animals, kinship, birds, trees, and body parts.
Though seemingly casual, their scripted conversations were not random. Nearby, two representatives from the National Indian Telecommunications Institute (NITI), headquartered in Santa Fe, diligently recorded every word, phrase, and nuance.
In a matter of months, the conversations recorded during this session will be subject to eavesdropping by anyone who has access to a multimedia computer.
“Native languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. There were once 500 Native American languages, and there are now around 150. That number is expected to drop to under 120 by the year 2020,” said NITI spokesperson Carla Lopez. “We’re trying to train tribes across the nation to use computer technology to preserve their languages.”
“There’s a real feeling of urgency on this,” added NITI official Karen Buller. “It’s urgent we collect these things before our elders pass on. All [speakers] in this group are over 80 years old.”
NITI is funding the project with proceeds from a modest grant awarded by the Fund for Four Directions, the only U.S. foundation that funds American Indian language projects exclusively.
“Our grant is only for $15,000, [but] this is really a $100,000 project,” Buller said.
The elders attending were all fluent speakers of Comanche and active members of the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee.
The goal is to produce and turn over to the committee an interactive CD-ROM that can be copied and sold as the group continues its mission of preserving the Comanche language.
Technology like this will be useful to American Indian students on reservations trying to learn their native languages, as well as students across the nation interested in American Indian studies and linguistics, according to Karina Russell, NITI program director at the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Ariz.
“I think CD-ROM technology is an important part of education today. We have one [CD] on the Navajo reservation that teaches science in both Navajo and English,” she said. “There is even a Navajo font available for download to the computer, so children and teachers can write in Navajo.”
The actual computer work for the prototype will fall to another NITI staff member.
The finished product will allow users to load the CD-ROM on a computer and click on a topic to see and hear the actual conversation. At the same time, subtitles in English and Comanche will appear on the screen.
NITI hopes to publish the first volume of the CD-ROM in the fall, but Buller is quick to add that it depends on the tribe members themselves. “Basically, they sit and argue about each word that they submit and its proper use. We get new words every month and we add them to the dictionary as we go,” she said.
In two days, the elders recorded 128 individual vocabulary words, as well as five “vignettes,” in front of Buller’s camera.
NITI has worked with similar language education programs in the past. “We worked with a K-3 language immersion program in Bethel, Alaska, where teachers speak and teach in Yupíik all day,” said Buller. NITI also supported the use of technology in Hawaiian language immersion programs on the island of Oahu, she added.
Comanche by heritage, Buller has a basic comprehension of Comanche but can speak only a little.
“For the most part, there’s no one younger than 55 or 60 who’s fluent any more,” she said. “If they’re younger than that, they may understand it, but they’re not fluent. A language is dead if the children of that language are not speaking it.”
National Indian Telecommunications Institute