Professor Uses Technology to Preserve Tribal Languages

UA News Services
July 1, 2004

Efforts to help preserve native languages through the use of technology can be considered a "matter of life and death." Thanks to the work of Native Americans from the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), the University of Arizona and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, two more languages are closer to preservation.

Susan Penfield, of the UA department of English has devoted more than 30 years of her professional life to working with endangered languages. More recently, she has been the principle investigator in a project funded since January 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train tribal members in the use of selected technologies that support language revitalization.

This grant has provided funds for the collaboration between the CRIT and the UA. The CRIT Reservation is located on the Colorado River, just south of Lake Havasu on the Arizona/California border. CRIT is home to four culturally and linguistically different tribes: Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo. Goals include the training of CRIT speakers of Mohave and Chemehuevi in the use of software and Internet tools which will support preservation and instruction related to these languages.

Mohave, a Yuman language, is spoken by 33 fully fluent speakers at CRIT. Most of these speakers are at least age 70 or older. Chemehuevi is spoken by only about 10 fluent speakers who are 60 years or older.

"The need to take action on these two most critically endangered languages of the four CRIT cultures was apparent," says Penfield. While the preservation of native languages ultimately rests with the members of the tribes themselves, Penfield and a group of specialists from the UA have initiated a project to train tribal members from the CRIT communities in the use of computer software and other technologies to help tribal members in this task.

As part of the project, six fluent speakers of Mohave and Chemehuevi learned how to record, preserve and digitally manipulate samples of their language with the help of special software installed on the laptops purchased with the grant money. Participants were already involved with language work either as teachers, librarians or consultants who were available to train on the UA campus.

One of the first sessions was on the use PowerPoint and Audacity software to create language lessons. Pictures from coloring books of Mohave and Chemehuevi were scanned and transformed into electronic images which were later combined with sound files created by the participants with the help of Audacity. These skills and language lessons encouraged the native speakers to learn additional computer skills and to use more complex software such as MaxAuthor, used for rarely taught languages and the MOO developed at the UA for multi-user conference space accessed through the Internet.

While the grant money is running out and funds are needed to continue the work, Penfield says that the project "has met its goals of training members from CRIT to develop a model for the use of technology-enhanced language revitalization. I'm very grateful to the participants from CRIT who interrupted their lives and work to train with us and who continue to fight for their languages. We learned a lot from them and the experience of working together was enriching for everyone."

Penfield would like to establish a one-week computer camp on the UA campus which would provide three units of credit in indigenous languages and technology. Also, more assistance is needed for additional hardware and software development. She says that "it's vital to recognize that the field of indigenous languages and technology is new and largely untapped."

"Computers, video cameras and recorders can't save languages; only people can do that," says Penfield, "but technology can support revitalization efforts."

Compiled from various sources and edited by Julieta Gonzalez, News Services.


Resources for the media

Susan Penfield, department of English
(520) 621--1836