How technology could help endangered languages like Cherokee | Culture
On its own, being able to read smartphone home screens in Cherokee won’t be enough to save the native language, which is on the verge of extinction after a long history of erasure. But it could be a step toward immersing young tribal citizens in the language spoken by a dwindling number of their elders.
That’s the hope of Senior Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who is counting on more inclusive consumer technology — and the involvement of a big tech company — to help.
Sneed and other Cherokee executives spent several months consulting Lenovo-owned Motorola, which last week introduced a Cherokee-language interface to its new line of phones. Now phone users will be able to find apps and toggle settings using the syllable-based written form of the language first created by the Sequoyah of the Cherokee Nation in the early 1800s. of the company’s Edge Plus lineup when they go on sale in the spring.
“It’s just one more piece of a very big puzzle of trying to preserve and proliferate the language,” said Sneed, who has worked with members of his own West Coast tribe. North Carolina and other Cherokee leaders who speak a different dialect in Oklahoma that is more widely spoken but also endangered.
This isn’t the first time consumer technology has embraced the language, as Apple, Microsoft and Google already allow users to configure their laptops and phones to type in Cherokee. But Cherokee language advocates who worked on the Motorola project said they tried to imbue it with the culture – not just written symbols – that they were trying to protect.
Grab the start button on the Motorola interface, which features a Cherokee word that translates to English as “just start.” It’s a clever nod to the laid-back way ancient Cherokee might use the phrase, said Benjamin Frey, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“He could have said ‘let’s start’ in different ways,” Frey said. “But he said halenagwu – just start. And it’s very Cherokee. I can kind of see an elder shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, I guess we’ll do it.” … It reminds me very well of the way the ancients speak, which is quite exciting.
When Motorola thought about integrating Cherokee into its phones, Frey was one of the people he reached out to. It sought to incorporate a language that the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, had named one of the most endangered in the world, but also a language that had an active community of language specialists that it could to consult.
“We work with people, not about people,” said Juliana Rebelatto, who serves as chief linguist and head of globalization for Motorola’s mobile division. “We didn’t want to work the language without them.”
Motorola modeled its Cherokee project on a similar indigenous language revitalization project Rebelatto helped work on in Brazil, where the brand – part of China-based parent company Lenovo – has a higher market share than in the USA. The company introduced telephone interfaces last year serving the Kaingang community in southern Brazil and the Nheengatu community in the Amazon regions of Brazil and neighboring countries.
Several large tech companies have expressed interest in recent years in making their technology work better for endangered Indigenous languages, more to show goodwill or advance speech recognition research than to meet a business imperative.
Microsoft’s text translation service recently added Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut, spoken in the Canadian Arctic, and local artificial intelligence researchers are carrying out similar projects in the Americas and beyond. But there’s still a long way to go before digital voice assistants understand these languages as well as English – and for some languages, time is running out.
Frey and Sneed said they recognize some Cherokee fear tech companies will create product functionality of their work to preserve their language – whether it’s a text-based interface like Motorola’s or future projects. potentials that could record speech to create a real-time voice assistant or translator.
“I think it’s a danger that companies can take this kind of material and profit from it, selling it without sharing the proceeds with community members,” Frey said. “I personally decided that the potential benefit was worth the risk, and I hope that will be confirmed.”
Frey did not grow up speaking Cherokee, largely due to the experiences of her grandmother being punished for speaking the language when she was sent to boarding school. For more than 150 years, Indigenous children in the United States and Canada have been removed from their communities and forced into assimilation-oriented boarding schools.
She and others of her generation were beaten for speaking the language, had their mouths washed out with soap and told ‘English was the only way to get ahead in the world’, said Frey. She didn’t pass it on to Frey’s mother.
“It was a 13,000-year chain of intergenerational transfer of language from parents to children that was broken because the federal government decided that English was the only language worth having,” said he declared.
Only about 225 of the approximately 16,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were fluent in Cherokee as a first language at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now I think we’re down to about 172,” said Sneed, the senior chef. “So we’ve lost quite a few in the last couple of years.”
Frey hopes the new tool will be a conversation starter between older Cherokee language speakers and their tech-savvy grandchildren. But it will take more immersive language interactions, not just text-based smartphone interfaces, to really make a difference.
“If young people today watch TikTok videos, we need more TikTok videos in Cherokee,” Frey said. “If they’re paying attention to YouTube, we need more YouTubers creating content in Cherokee. If they’re trading memes online, we need more memes written in Cherokee.
“We have to make sure the language continues to be used and continues to be spoken,” Frey said. “Otherwise it might die out.”