Posted to the Ethnos Project by on January 30th, 2013

Phil Cash Cash, who runs the Indigenous Language and Technology listserv at the University of Arizona, sent this out today…

Can the digital age save the Cherokee language? The halls of Facebook, Google and texting

Written by Becky Johnson, published on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 [source]

Excerpt: “Susan Gathers was kicked back in the student union one afternoon, her thumbs poised over her smart phone, simultaneously bantering with friends while texting — sometimes even texting the same person she was talking to.

This impressive skill to seamlessly dialogue in multiple mediums at once is nothing new for “Generation Next-ers” like Gathers. But unlike the typical truncated words and vowel-less abbreviations that permeate normal text-speak, her screen was filled with Cherokee syllables as she pushed send.

“What is … wait … oh, I get it. Ha-ha-ha-ha,” Venice Mason laughed from across the table after sorting out the Cherokee message Gathers sent her.

A mobile app that makes texting in the Cherokee language possible has become indispensible for Western Carolina University students majoring in Cherokee studies.

“I want to be fluent,” said Gather, a 23-year-old senior. “This is helping me reach that goal.”

A small group of students — some Cherokee, some not — have formed a Native American Club on campus. One of their hobbies is practicing Cherokee, something they can now do in the modern digital mediums of their generation, be it texting or even Facebook.

“That is how we are going to speak to each other in the future even more than we know,” said Cara Forbes, a freshman and president of WCU’s Native American Club.

Rapidly firing incomplete sentences on cell phones might not look or feel like the same Cherokee language spoken by fluent elders, but it’s a critical juncture in the race to pass the torch to the next generation of speakers. Putting the language at the fingertips of youth in a format they know means the language is being used in daily life and interactions — which is ultimately the test of a language’s survival.

“Language is something that happens in social interactions between people who hold that language in their minds,” said Hartwell Francis, the director of WCU’s Cherokee language program. “They are not thinking about how they are interacting; they are simply interacting through the language.”

Cherokee language proponents have collaborated with Google to launch a Cherokee language interface and Cherokee language version of GMail. One click of the mouse can switch the language settings to Cherokee for web searches and composing email messages.

The possibilities are vast. Whether it’s Cherokee YouTube videos or skyping with native Cherokee speakers, getting the language into new popular mediums could make the difference in the language surviving or dying down the road.”

Read the rest of the article

Questions raised by / inspired by the article

The article raises some important questions – and inspired a few of my own – about the use of information and communication technologies and web-based social media platforms to keep a language alive. In no particular order…

  • How does one validate the authenticity of language apps / resources on the web?
  • Does the availability of language apps, sites and resources do more than provide a false sense of security?
  • Is technology / the Internet a last line of defense for those struggling to keep their native language alive?
  • How much does availability of apps / online language resources contribute to the revitalization of a language?
  • In what ways does the “mediated” nature of online communication in a native language (i.e. Cherokee, as in the article) affect one’s culture? By what metrics do we measure?
  • What ways can people leverage existing human capacity with technology to sustain language and tradition? (i.e. the WCU students recording elders to create translated versions of children’s books in Cherokee using computer software)
  • Can new media act as an effective bridge for young language learners to continue using their native language after they leave the classroom?

Feel free to share your own thoughts and questions…

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