American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI)

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 27 13:53:12 UTC 2007

AILDI June 26th, 2007 ·

I spent the last week or so visiting the American Indian Language
Development Institute in Tucson, Arizona. It was beautiful and hot out
there in the desert. AILDI is an Institute at the University of
Arizona that runs for four weeks. It offers a series of courses for
developing the skills and networking of people interested in American
Indian languages.  The courses are intensive but from what I saw
extremely useful. Included are courses on Language Policy and
Planning,  Grant Writing for Indigenous Languages, American Indian
Language Immersion and more. It was inspiring to be part of it and
speak with the participants and teachers.

I gave a talk on my work in Australia,  as a community based linguist
and  as a researcher, the next day I had a chance to visit some of the
classes and talk with more details about different aspects of those
two jobs.  I am still thinking through many different aspects of it,
it would be amazing to see its parallel in Australia.

It was so wonderful to walk around and hear the different languages
being spoken, and to hear about what is  happening in different
communities in the USA.
There was also a visitor there from a company called the
'Phraselator', who were selling a small handheld device, meant as a
tool ( developed by the US army) for recording Indigenous languages,
using voice activation.  There was a strange tension in the room all
the time he was speaking.  Many people asked good questions, like has
it been shown to have increased rates of learning or languages, and he
was strangely defensive. Jodi Burshia set me this:

"This is from the ILAT listserv September 2006…

Once again the White Man is ripping off Indian tribes by flim-flamming them
with the idea that their languages can be preserved by recording the equivalent
of a phrase-book on a high-tech hand-held device. These devices are obviously
useful in situations where there is no common language for communication, and
where communication usually consists of a fairly predictable and restricted
number of expressions (customizable for, e.g., house-to-house searches for
terrorists or surgeons in a field hospital trying to save Lebanese children
brutally injured by Israeli cluster bombs). However, a good way to test the
utility of the device in a community setting would be to use one, set up with
another well-documented language such as Spanish, and have someone who
knows Spanish use it to simulate conversation with other community
members in English.

My guess is that patience would quickly wear thin with the person looking up
the Spanish phrase or sentence in order to produce the appropriate English
expression. If there were Cherokee speakers who knew no English, the device
could come in handy if a doctor in an emergency room had to communicate with
them, but it is difficult to imagine English-only grandchildren having long
conversations with their Cherokee-only grandparents (if many exist). Even
granted the possible utility of the device in emergency situations, the
wide-spread adoption of it might actually hasten language death by leading
people to think that this would relieve them of the tedium and effort of
actually learning the language — just like telling students in school that
they no longer need to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, or divide since
their calculators will do all of that drudgework for them (fine until the
batteries run out, or the wiring goes screwy and produces inaccurate results
– as I've seen happen — and could not be checked).

Rudy Troike "


The last day I was there there was an excursion with the Tohono
O'odham Elders to pick 'bahidaj' the fruit of the saguaro (cactus), we
walked in the morning sun and used the long ribs of the saguaro tied
into poles to push the fruit from the top and catch it in a bucket.
There were lizards scuttling about and prickly cactus plants
everywhere. The fruit tasted sweet - a bit like fig. It was beautiful!

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