Integrating Technology into Minority Language Preservation and Teaching Efforts: An Inside Job

Article excerpt


The recent explosion in technology, in particular in computer and digitizing systems, has many implications for heritage language maintenance and learning. In particular, authentic language usage can be easily recorded and preserved for those goals. That same explosion, however, can lead to a less than appropriate implementation of technology for language maintenance and learning. Further, certain cultural boundaries can make it difficult to have access to authentic language usage, particularly by out-group individuals who work on indigenous languages. This paper presents a pilot study that attempts to both implement technology in an appropriate manner and surmount the problems faced by out-group language researchers by training an in-group member, in this case a speaker of Navajo, in the methodology and technology necessary for recording and preserving her heritage language. The results of this work are discussed, as well as the role of computer and digitizing technology in language maintenance and teaching.[1]


The loss of non-English languages in the United States, either indigenous or of other origin, appears to be an inexorable process. Regarding indigenous languages, Krauss (1998) notes that of the estimated 300 present before European contact in what is now the United States and Canada, some 210 survive. Many of those languages, however, are only spoken by the oldest members of the speech community, and will die along with them. At the same time, Krauss sounds a very faint note of hope. Members of minority language groups have been, or are becoming, increasingly aware that an important linguistic and cultural tradition is disappearing, and some have chosen to take measures to try to stem the incipient loss of their heritage language. These efforts take place at many levels, but undoubtedly the recent explosion in technology presents opportunities to aid in efforts at learning or re-acquiring a heritage language.

At the same time, the sheer rapidity of that boom can place that same technology out of the reach of all but a select number of highly trained individuals. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate one way in which the technology gap may be bridged so that members of a minority language group can take advantage of technology for language teaching, preservation and maintenance in a manner appropriate to their cultural and linguistic realities. Described here is a pilot project carried out at New Mexico State University (NMSU), under the auspices of the Kellogg Foundation, to train a speaker of an indigenous language, Navajo, in both language maintenance issues and the technology needed for creating authentic materials for language maintenance as well as instruction.


Not long ago, a people's record of their traditions, culture, and their very way of viewing the world died with the oldest member of the community unless that record was memorized by subsequent generations. Even the introduction of a written record did not solve this situation. Writing down a story does not capture how talented storytellers pass on cultural history, or the language skills they use to do so. However, the invention of new technologies changed that limitation. It became possible, with the appearance of Edison's phonograph toward the end of the 19th century, to capture sound, and at that point it became at least theoretically possible to record ancestral stories and languages. Even after an older generation disappeared, their voices could still be heard, as many times as one wanted, so that their lives and their memories did not disappear at their death.

However, the new technologies were not, nor are they presently, foolproof and permanent. For example, some of the earliest language researchers used magnetic recording machines that do not exist anymore, except perhaps in museums. …