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The Phraselator II

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A high-tech military device is helping to preserve the tribal languages of American Indians.

Native American FeatureWhen Terry Brockie first learned of the Phraselator, a speech interpretation device developed by the military as a way to easily translate Arabic words into English, he immediately wanted to get one. He saw great possibilities for using the machine to record the elders of his tribe saying words and phrases in their native tongue, and thus preserve his tribe’s language for future generations. In 2005, Brockie visited a popular tribal elder, 109-year-old Theresa Lamebull, whose collected knowledge amounted to a living linguistic history of a large chunk of the Gros Ventre tribe’s culture.

The Gros Ventre people, as Brockie is quick to point out, have lived in the north-central region of Montana for hundreds of years. But today there are only a handful of speakers proficient in their ancient language. Brockie, a high school and tribal college teacher, knew there would be a lot of recording to do.

He was soon able to connect with a company selling the Palm Pilot-sized gadgets and brought one over to Lamebull’s house. She was immediately curious.

“What is it?” she asked Brockie, to whom she had been teaching the Gros Ventre language for several years.

With the Phraselator, hundreds of younger tribal citizens are diligently working with their elders to preserve and teach the unique and complex linguistic traditions of their tribes.

Brockie explained that with a few button clicks and a couple of touch-screen presses on the Phraselator’s small digital monitor, he could record her words, and those words could then be translated back into English (or any other language, for that matter).

Lamebull marveled at the complexity of the new technology, but she quickly understood the purpose of what she called an “aa si aaw,” the Gros Ventre phrase for computer.

After Lamebull’s first recording session, Brockie played back her speech. She initially laughed heartily, with tears running down her cheeks at the sound of her voice. And then she asked to continue. Lamebull ultimately recorded hundreds of unique Gros Ventre words and phrases into the Phraselator before she passed away in August.

“A wealth of knowledge left us when she died,” Brockie says. “I learned so much from her—not only about the language, but also about taking responsibility for carrying on our culture to our children.”

Throughout Indian Country, hundreds of younger tribal citizens like Brockie are diligently working with their elders to preserve and teach the unique and complex linguistic traditions of their tribes. There are currently more than 70 tribes using the Phraselator as a language preservation tool.

Indian linguists say the gadget has gained popularity at a critical time, since most tribes have very few living members who know their native tongue. It is increasingly rare to find young Indians who communicate with their elders in the tribal language.

The story behind the Phraselator’s adaptation for tribal use begins with Don Thornton, a Cherokee business owner who first read about the military’s use of the gadget in Middle East war zones after 9/11. The weatherproof handheld device was initially field-tested in Afghanistan in 2001, and has been used by U.S. forces during the ongoing Iraq war to decipher Arabic languages.

Thornton didn’t care much about the translation of Arabic, but he did believe the device could be easily used to combat the problem of decreasing Indian language knowledge. Since the technology behind the device was proprietary to a U.S. government contractor, he soon began campaigning for the right to use the technology in the fight to save indigenous dialects.

Thornton found an ally in Voxtec, a Maryland-based hi-tech company, and his own company, Thornton Media Inc., was ultimately granted permission to sell the device to tribes and individual Indians. Voxtec, in turn, agreed to supply the company with new shipments of Phraselators, and has since assisted in the development of Indian-focused language revitalization software.

The Phraselator itself looks like a cross between a BlackBerry and a walkie-talkie. It can record and translate both audio and video files, and it stores language via a flash memory card. A one-gigabyte card will hold up to 85,000 phrases or words, which can then be transferred to other computers.

“There’s a huge trend in Indian Country to revive the languages,” Thornton says. “I think the feature of the Phraselator that really attracts tribes is that they can do it all themselves—and they retain all copyright of their materials. They don’t have to depend on outsiders.”

The gadget has gained popularity at a critical time, since most tribes have very few living members who know their native tongue.

Lucinda Robbins, Thornton’s grandmother and a master speaker of the Cherokee language, was among the first to program the device. She had previously worked with a non-Indian professor from an American university who promised to create a paper-based Cherokee-to-Indian dictionary.

“That man used to come to my house for three years asking how to say words in Cherokee,” Robbins recalls. “Pretty soon it would be lists of phrases. I fixed his lists for three years, and all I wanted was a copy of the finished work, but never received one.”

In light of that negative experience, Robbins is especially proud that her grandson’s business is now able to offer the Phraselator to all tribes, and that the words recorded can be saved and shared through digital computer technology.

Thornton’s company offers on-site training to anyone who purchases more than two of the devices, which cost about $3,300 per unit (plus additional software costs of about $500).

That price tag has proven to be a barrier for some tribes, especially ones that don’t have strong grant-writing teams or extra funding from tribal enterprises. Approximately half of the 70 tribes Thornton Media works with have purchased Phraselators via grants from the U.S. government.

For those able to afford the technology, the biggest surprise seems to have been how quickly many elders embraced it. “Traditionally, you’d think that native-speaking elders would be technology-averse,” Thornton says. “I guess that’s sort of a stereotype I had in my head.”

Wayne Wells, a Dakota language teacher and a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota, has seen firsthand the appreciation many elders have for the new method of language preservation.

When his tribe received a Phraselator, Wells paid a visit to the home of Curt Campbell, one of the tribe’s few fluent elders. After asking how the device is different from a tape recorder, Campbell was ready to begin.

"Where do you go to school?” Wells asked.

“Okay,” Campbell responded. And then he clearly uttered the phrase “mis hed wabdawa” into a headset microphone.

Campbell is well-versed in the oral traditions of the tribe and has shared much of his knowledge with Wells. “I’ve learned a lot about our land, where our people lived,” Wells says. “And how our language was formed by the land.”

In a similar vein, Brockie reports that his recording sessions with Lamebull and other elders taught him about being a better person. “I learned a lot of old stories and the way we used to do things a long time ago,” he says. “And now I can tell those stories to my children.”

Since beginning to sell the device, Thornton says he has encountered some biased beliefs regarding how Indians should be learning language. For example, critics have asked whether the Phraselator is antithetical to the tribes’ traditional, community-focused method of learning.

Thornton admits that the best way to learn a language is from a native speaker in the home—from one speaker to another. However, because so few American Indians have been able to retain their languages, that route is often impractical.

Elders who are highly proficient in their language note that they often spend their time teaching basic words and phrases to Indian students. A tool like the Phraselator could allow these elders to educate students more efficiently.

Not all fluent elders make good language teachers, moreover. “Sometimes elders can’t get around well anymore,” Wells explains. “Being able to bring their translations on the Phraselator to a classroom is sometimes much easier.”

Thornton stresses that Indians can be pro-technology without worrying that they’ve sold out their culture.

“Some people want to see Indians sitting around in a lodge learning a language from grandpa, with grandma tanning hides outside,” he says. “But the fact is, technology is here, and I think more and more Indians are eager to use it to help retain culture.”

Rob Capriccioso is the editor of Big Head DC, a Washington news and gossip blog.

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