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

Bryan James Gordon linguista at gmail.com
Tue Jul 15 17:56:13 UTC 2008

Thank heavens Bierma interviewed Hinton for this piece. I question his
motives based on both the title of the piece and his giving Thornton the
last word - a disingenuous last word if you ask me, for two reasons:

1) Does Thornton mean to imply that Hinton is part of the tendency to put of
linguistic fossils on museum shelves? She is most certainly not. If Thornton
doesn't mean that, then Bierma is implying it by his quote placement.

2) The phraselator itself, regardless of Thornton's words to the contrary,
is just a fancy (and expensive) museum fossil. It has nothing to do with
revitalisation as opposed to documentation. It's going to sit on people's
mantles like a linguistic Christmas ornament after there are no speakers
left, and to the extent that its money and effort are diverted from more
productive efforts like the ones Hinton suggests (thanks Bierma for quoting
them), it is complicit in the death of our languages and the languages of
others, and in the false hopes of our communities and the communities we
work with. The phraselator COULD be put to good use, but it will never
produce fluent speakers without the aid of other speakers or at least of
language courses (which are pretty measly at producing fluent speakers,
too). I think my parents' word for this kind of gadget is "snake oil".

- Bryan James Gordon

2008/7/15 Alan H. Hartley <ahartley at d.umn.edu>:

> 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
> supply.
> 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
> tongues.
> "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 (c) 2008, Chicago Tribune
> http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-language-0715jul15,0,3495516.story
> 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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