Racing to Save a Native American Language
There are a number of challenges to saving an endangered language from documenting to teaching, but those aren’t stopping language specialists from the Cherokee Nation, the University of Kansas (KU) and the University of Oklahoma.
The nation has been working on a number of initiatives over the last two decades to revitalize the Cherokee language including establishing a searchable Cherokee Electronic Dictionary (CED) and the Cherokee Nation Immersion School in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The CED has helped with the challenge of documenting the language. “I think we have much better ways of documenting languages now than just writing it. Writing is important, but technology has helped us record the spoken voice in action and preserve it in many different ways,” Akira Yamamoto, professor emeritus of anthropology and linguistics at KU, said. He is on the linguistics team that is developing the CED.
The latest effort—the Documenting Cherokee Tone Project—will add a spoken element to the 10,000 entries in the CED. That’s where Lizette Peter, an assistant professor of curriculum and teaching and a specialist in second language acquisition in KU’s School of Education, comes in. She ended up in one of Yamamoto’s endangered language courses as a graduate student and was hooked. She now works with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina and the Indigenous Language Institute in New Mexico to help preserve the language.
Peter is one of three recipients of grants totaling just under $200,000 from the Documenting Endangered Languages program—through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation—that will be used to document Cherokee tone and vowel length.
She said the project will improve proficiency in the Cherokee language and increase linguistic understanding of tonal languages.
“Cherokee is a tonal language, and a shift in tone or the length of a vowel, or both, can change the meaning of a word,” Peter said. For example, expressions for the term meaning “food or groceries” or “time to eat” differ only in the initial tone on the first and last vowels.
“A unique component of our project,” Peter noted, “is that we pair fluent, native speakers with highly proficient second language learners to do the documentation work. This builds internal capacity for knowledge of the language.”
This goes back to the teaching challenge, while there are nearly 300,000 Cherokee Nation citizens, few under the age of 40 can converse in Cherokee.
During the first year of the two-year tone project the group will focus on recording and transcribing audio for every entry in the CED. The second year will focus on developing materials and methods to teach language students to hear and pronounce the distinctions of vowel lengths and tone.
The Cherokee Immersion School—a place where all lessons are taught in Cherokee—opened in 2001, and will be a site for the tone project’s teaching component. Peter has been working with the staff there since it started, and feels that being bilingual offers a great advantage to students.
“I feel very committed to this,” she said. “This has been a mutually respectful relationship,” Peter said of her work with the Cherokee. “Together we've developed a curriculum with their teachers to educate the children, and they've allowed us to do research on saving languages with them.”