[lg policy] Cherokee on the iPhone and the claim that this will help "revitalize" the language

Jeremy Graves jayrkirk42 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Jan 20 22:58:20 UTC 2011

I can't claim any hard data, but it seems to me that bringing a language to 
venues that young people use is an attempt to aid intergenerational transfer. I 
very much doubt that "gizmos" alone can do it, but it makes sense to me to make 
an endangered language available on those gizmos. 

From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Sent: Tue, January 11, 2011 10:09:19 AM
Subject: [lg policy] Cherokee on the iPhone and the claim that this will help 
"revitalize" the language


Another story (below) about Cherokee and Apple partnering to put
Cherokee on iPhones with the claim that this will help
revitalize the language.  I'm getting tired of these kinds of claims,
but they have even pervaded more "scientific" venues.
As far as I'm concerned, what helps revitalize an endangered language
is intergenerational transfer, not hi-tech gizmos.
My complaint about this has to do with my application to NSF for
support for an electronic version of an English-Tamil
dictionary, which was rejected twice.  Only after the second rejection
did they bother to inform me that their highest priority
in the category I was applying in was "endangered languages" and Tamil
wasn't an endangered language.  This says to
me that somebody up there thinks an electronic database of a language
is going to help "save" it.  I know of no research
in the language-policy literature that substantiates this claim, but
it seems to be at least an urban myth.

Anybody else have any hard data on this?


Cherokee, Apple partner to put language on iPhones

By MURRAY EVANS, Associated Press Murray Evans, Associated Press – Thu
Dec 23, 4:26 pm ET

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Nine-year-old Lauren Hummingbird wants a cell phone
for Christmas — and not just any old phone, but an iPhone. Such a
request normally would be met with skepticism by her father, Cherokee
Nation employee Jamie Hummingbird. He could dismiss the obvious
reasons a kid might want an iPhone, except for this — he's a proud
Cherokee and buying his daughter the phone just might help keep the
tribe's language alive. Nearly two centuries after a blacksmith named
Sequoyah converted Cherokee into its own unique written form, the
tribe has worked with Apple to develop Cherokee language software for
the iPhone, iPod and — soon — the iPad. Computers used by students —
including Lauren — at the tribe's language immersion school already
allow them to type using Cherokee characters.

The goal, Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said, is to spread the use of the
language among tech-savvy children in the digital age. Smith has been
known to text students at the school using Cherokee, and teachers do
the same, allowing students to continue using the language after
school hours. Lauren isn't the only Cherokee child pleading for an
iPhone, "and that doesn't help my cause," Jamie Hummingbird joked,
knowing he'll probably give in.

Tribal officials first contacted Apple about getting Cherokee on the
iPhone three years ago. It seemed like a long shot, as the devices
support only 50 of the thousands of languages worldwide, and none were
American Indian tongues. But Apple's reputation for innovation gave
the tribe hope. After many discussions and a visit from Smith, the
Cupertino, Calif.-based company surprised the tribe by coming through
this fall. "There are countries vying to get on these devices for
languages, so we are pretty excited we were included," said Joseph
Erb, who works in the Cherokee Nation's language technology division.

The Cherokee take particular pride in their past, including the
alphabet, or syllabary, Sequoyah developed in 1821. In 1828, the tribe
obtained a printing press and began publishing the Cherokee Phoenix,
which the Cherokee claim was the nation's first bilingual newspaper.
Copies circulated as far away as Europe, tribal officials say. The
Cherokee language thrived back then, but like other tribal tongues, it
has become far less prevalent over the decades. Today only about 8,000
Cherokee speakers remain — a fraction of the tribe's 290,000 members —
and most of those are 50 or older, Smith said.

Tribal leaders realized something must done to encourage younger
generations to learn the language. "What makes you a Cherokee if you
don't have Cherokee thoughts?" asked Rita Bunch, superintendent of the
tribe's Sequoyah Schools. Tribal officials thus decided to develop the
language immersion school, in which students would be taught multiple
subjects in a Cherokee-only environment.

The Oklahoma school began in 2001 and now has 105 students in
kindergarten through fifth grade. They work on Apple laptops already
loaded with the Cherokee language — the Macintosh operating system has
supported Cherokee since 2003 — and featuring a unique keypad overlay
with Cherokee's 85 characters, each of which represent a different
syllable. But Erb and co-workers Jeff Edwards and Roy Boney knew there
had to be more ways to tap into the younger generation's love of cell
phones, iPods and the like.

"If you don't figure out a way to keep technology exciting and
innovative for the language, kids have a choice when they get on a
cell phone," Erb said. "If it doesn't have Cherokee on it, they all
speak English," he said. "They'll just give up their Cherokee ...
because the cool technology is in English. So we had to figure out a
way to make the cool technology in Cherokee."

Initially, the thought was to simply create an application so texting
could be done in Cherokee. But that idea quickly grew. Apple officials
and their tribal counterparts spoke often during the give-and-take
that followed. When prospects seemed bleak, Edwards said tribal
officials "used our immersion school students to pull on
heartstrings." And Smith, the chief, made the trip to northern
California to speak with Apple's decision-makers.

Apple has a history of secrecy when it comes to its product releases,
so tribal leaders didn't know for sure the company was going forward
with the idea until just before the September release of Mac iOS 4.1.

Erb said the Apple devices that support Cherokee are most popular with
students, but the technology is slowly gaining traction with older
tribal members, especially those who might not like using computers
but routinely use cell phones.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to answer questions about the
company's work with the Cherokee, the costs involved, or whether Apple
plans to collaborate with other tribes.

Tribal officials say Cherokee is so far the only American Indian
language supported by Apple devices.

However, they're not the only indigenous people using technology to
save their language. One of the languages supported in the Mac
operating system is Hawaiian. And in 2003, the Hawaiian Language
Digital Library project went online, making available more than
100,000 pages of searchable newspaper archives, books and other
material in the language native to Hawaii.

Back in Tahlequah, Lauren Hummingbird just knows she wants an iPhone.
Using the device to practice Cherokee at home would be easier "than
getting this out of the bag," she said, pointing to her laptop. "You
can just text."

That enthusiasm for using Cherokee-themed technology is what will help
keep the tribe's language, and thus its culture, alive in generations
to come, Smith said.

He compared the use of Cherokee on Apple devices to Sequoyah's
creation of the syllabary and the tribe's purchase of the printing

He sees a day when tribal members routinely will read books and
perform plays and operas in their native language.

"You always hear the cliche, 'History repeats itself.' This is one of
those historic moments that people just don't comprehend what is
happening," the chief said. "What this does is give us some hope that
the language will be revitalized."


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