Of the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 139 of them still have speakers of their native language, and more than 90% of those languages are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050. Languages carry tribal knowledge, culture, humor, conversation styles, spirituality, and traditions. When language speakers decrease dramatically and parts of the language is lost, it must be “refashioned” into the new language using different words, sounds, and grammatical structures—if the transfer is even possible at all.
“Linguists’ work in communities when language shift is occurring shows that for the most part such refashioning, even when social identity is maintained, involves abrupt loss of tradition,” University of Texas professor of linguistics Anthony Woodbury writes. “More often, the cultural forms of the colonial power take over, transmitted often by television.”
In response to the threat of language loss, some Indigenous tribes are turning towards accessible technology to save and revitalize their languages.
Language revitalization is grounded in education and accessibility; if language resources aren’t available and there are no designated ways to practice that language, how will it continue to be used?
Some tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, have held language courses for several years, but many tribes face barriers to developing language programs of their own. There may not be any remaining elders who speak the language well enough to teach it—the Cherokee and Navajo Nations are the two largest Native American tribes who have retained the most speakers of their languages.
Then even if there is an elder available to teach, they may lack resources to set up structured, systemic language classes. Then, there is the added challenge of accessibility—if the classes take place at a high school on the reservation, how will tribe members living off the reservation access the information?
That’s where technological solutions can help.
The computers in our pockets
When Keegan Livermore, a member of the Yakama Nation, learned that there were only a couple dozen fluent speakers of Ichishkíin—a language in the Sahaptin family spoken by the Yakama, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation—he felt a responsibility to learn the language himself.
While attending a technology panel during a linguistic education workshop, Livermore’s group discussed how language tools could be made more accessible to young people.
“We’ve already had computer keyboards,” Livermore said. “If we’re thinking about how to get teenagers and college students to use it, why not make a phone keyboard?”
Livermore, who at the time was studying linguistics and learning the Ichishkíin language at Heritage University on the Yamaka Reservation, describes the process of creating an Android Ichishkíin keyboard as a four-day fever dream, working on his graduate studies during the day and coding the keyboard at night.
Written Ichishkíin has a 39-character alphabet, many of which are modified English characters. But, the intention was to have a keyboard strictly built for Ichishkíin, not a keyboard based in English. For example, the alphabet has the characters ḵ, w, and ḵw. While Livermore could have created a modified English keyboard that just had ḵ and w, he chose to create a key for ḵw, honoring the actual alphabet of the language.
Livermore and seven other Ichishkíin speakers then tested the keyboard in text messages and social media posts, modifying the placement of characters until the keyboard seemed optimized for Ichishkíin.
“I was really pushing myself to use it as often as I could,” Livermore said, which helped him build his confidence speaking the language. “It gives me a tether for the language.”
Livermore, who is now working on adapting the keyboard to iOS, envisions using phone keyboards as a way to assign homework in his own future language curriculum. An easy assignment could be a student texting him a couple sentences in Ichishkíin about what they did over the weekend or requiring a few texts a week between class “pen pals,” Livermore said. Those types of assignments inject the language in students’ everyday modern life—a key part of language revitalization.
Because Ichishkíin speakers must have a grasp of vocabulary to read and type the language, Livermore’s keyboard isn’t an early education tool, but rather an accessible way to integrate practice into a learner’s daily life.
“It enables you to use what you already know,” Livermore said.
Filling in the gaps
Along with keyboards and texting, help comes from teachers such as Tami Hohn, a southern Lushootseed lecturer at the University of Washington and member of the Puyallup Tribe.
Lushootseed is a Salishan language spoken by Indigenous people in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. Hohn has taught the language both to children and adults, groups that require different educational approaches, she said.
For children, Hohn developed a curriculum that uses a grammatical approach by breaking down sentences into individual words and syllable sounds. With adults, Hohn teaches an intellectual understanding of the language, one that is informed by history, culture, and meaning. An intellectual understanding of the language allows speakers to create their own thoughts through the language, not just string together vocabulary words.
For all language learners, Hohn said, language apps—such as phrase-to-picture matching games—can be a great way to practice the language in small moments, like waiting for an appointment or at the bus stop.
Lushootseed also has computer and mobile keyboards based on Unicode, a worldwide standard for digitally representing different written languages and assigning characters to specific keystrokes. But Unicode doesn’t always transfer across digital platforms such as email or various web browsers, making Lushootseed characters show up as odd boxes and nonsensical punctuation.
“The support that we really need from [technology] companies is the fonts,” Hohn said. “We shouldn’t have to type in Unicode, we should be able to type anywhere.”
Lack of font support is one way Native languages are being forced into the past. Hohn believes tribes shouldn’t have to find a workaround to type in their language.
Preservation through audio
According to Hohn, Lushootseed no longer has first-language speakers—people who grew up speaking fluently—so linguists only had access to the language through preserved writings and audio recordings. Recording and archiving audio files of elders or fluent speakers is another preservation tool that can provide a foundation to language revitalization.
FirstVoices is a suite of web-based tools designed to help Indigenous people archive language information for teaching and preservation. The service, launched in 2003, provides tribes with a page where audio clips of words, phrases, stories, songs, and more can be uploaded and organized. The initiative, run by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia, also provides grants for communities working on language revitalization to compensate them for the time it takes to archive the audio.
Daniel Yona, FirstVoices’ development manager, stressed that the service enables tribes to approach language documentation and revitalization as each community sees best fit by providing as many tools as possible for each tribe to customize their archive. For example, each tribe’s archive has an administrator who can determine which recordings are private and which are public. Public recordings can be played by anyone, but to listen to private recordings, a tribal member must create an account and be approved by the tribe’s administrator to access the audio. This keeps recordings of prayers or sacred songs strictly within the tribal community.
FirstVoices now hosts 31 of the 34 indigenous languages in B.C., as well as some Native American languages from the United States. Yona says that it’s not a goal to have all of the languages archived on FirstVoices, because the initiative is only one part of the multifaceted effort of language revitalization.
“Just because they’re not on FirstVoices doesn’t mean they don’t have dictionaries and they’re not doing work in their own communities,” Yona said. “Technology is one piece of this bigger picture of language revitalization.”
The threat of a long process
With the threat of language extinction looming, native language activists such as Hohn and Livermore feel a sense of urgency in everything they do. At the same time, language revitalization is a generational process.
“I will never see in my lifetime the state of language that I aspire to,” Livermore said. The Ichishkíin learners Livermore will teach will become better teachers than he is, and their students will pass on the skills to their descendents. Livermore foresees a language revival among future generations, but that doesn’t stop the pressure of needing to do as much as he can right now.
“I feel that sense of urgency all the time,” Hohn said, but being patient in the face of a constant threat of language extinction is essential to successful revitalization. A limited number of Lushootseed teachers deeply understand the language. If teachers who do not understand the language in a cultural and historical way are pushed to teach as many people as they can in the name of revitalization, the language will still be reduced to grammar and vocabulary. That childlike understanding of Lushootseed, or any other native language, will be detrimental to the integrity and significance of the language, Hohn said.
“You have to have language with meaning or what’s the point?” Hohn said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. The number has been corrected, and YES! regrets this error.