[Fwd: Chicago Tribune "On Language" 7/15/08: Gadget helps save ancient tongues]

Alan H. Hartley ahartley at d.umn.edu
Tue Jul 15 16:19:05 UTC 2008

Gadget helps save ancient tongues


By Nathan Bierma
July 15, 2008

When Don Thornton meets an elder of an American Indian tribe, he takes 
out a hand-held electronic device that looks like a giant cell phone.

It's called the Phraselator--short for "phrase translator"--a hand-held 
computer that can record and play phrases in different languages. It's 
not the fictional Universal Translator from "Star Trek," but Thornton 
says the Phraselator is becoming a key tool in the fight to save dying 
American Indian languages.

"The first step in learning a language is that you have to hear it 
correctly, especially for sounds that aren't used in your own native 
tongue," Thornton said in a telephone interview. "To speak the language, 
you just have to start using this [device]."

The Phraselator doesn't translate words and sentences from scratch. 
Instead, when you type or speak an English phrase into the Phraselator, 
it retrieves an audio clip of the translation of that phrase.

Thornton got the idea from the U.S. military, which has been using 
Phraselators in Afghanistan and Iraq, where interpreters are in short 

He arranged with Voxtec (voxtec.com), the developer and manufacturer of 
the Phraselator, to adapt it for preserving dying American Indian 
languages. He founded Thornton Media (ndnlanguage.com) to sell the 
product and accompanying software to tribes and help train them how to 
use it. Tribes record their speakers saying phrases from their languages 
and then have young people listen to the recordings to help them learn 
the language.

Thornton says while the technology is aimed at young people learning a 
language, and doesn't depend on getting a tribal elder to learn the 
technology, sometimes tribal elders get hooked on the gadget too.

"I've seen elders sit there and play with the Phraselator like a little 
kid playing with a video game," he says.

Thornton estimates that nearly half of the 300 American Indian languages 
once spoken in the U.S. are now extinct, and most of the rest will die 
out within a generation unless they are learned and used by younger 
speakers. He says his Phraselator has been used to record almost 50 
languages--including Cherokee, Dakota Sioux and several smaller 
languages, many with fewer than 10 speakers left.

But other language preservationists question whether the Phraselator is 
a magic bullet for saving dying languages. Leanne Hinton, linguist at 
the University of California at Berkeley and author of "How to Keep Your 
Language Alive: A Commonsense Approach to One-On-One Language Learning" 
(Heyday Books, $15.95), prefers a different approach to promoting dying 
languages among younger speakers. She developed a method for young 
speakers to learn their tribal language through pure immersion, or 
extended exposure in conversations with older speakers, avoiding grammar 
or vocabulary books.

"The Phraselator is a good oral dictionary, and there's nothing wrong 
with that," Hinton said by telephone. "But you learn a language by using 
it in real life with other people."

Hinton also wonders if the Phraselator is worth the cost to tribes.

Phraselators cost more than $3,000 each (but Thornton says he can waive 
or cut the cost if tribes agree to let him use their recordings as 
sample audio files). Hinton says if American Indian tribes do turn to 
technology, they should develop free Web sites with audio files that can 
be downloaded onto iPods, rather than buy a separate expensive gadget.

Thornton says Phraselators have better sound quality and more storage 
space than other hand-held devices, and he asserts that they promote 
more interaction among speakers.

While modern technology perhaps cannot keep a language alive by itself, 
Thornton says, it can be a way to help speakers save their native tribal 

"We like to look at Phraselators not as language preservation tools, but 
language revitalization tools," he says. "We hope that somebody in a 
tribe will put the work in and become a speaker of the tribal language. 
We're working against the tendency to just record the language and put 
it up on a shelf like a museum piece."

Contact Nathan Bierma at onlanguage at gmail.com

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune


Nathan Bierma writes the "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune. He 
is also contributing editor to Books & Culture magazine, and teaches 
English and communications at Calvin College, where he works as 
communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of 
Christian Worship. His website is www.nbierma.com.

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