The Phraselator II
The Phraselator II
By Rob Capriccioso
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Filed under: Science & Technology, Culture
How a high-tech military device is helping to preserve the tribal languages
of American Indians.
Native American FeatureWhen Terry Brockie first learned of the Phraselator,
a speech interpretation device developed by the military as a way to easily
translate Arabic words into English, he immediately wanted to get one. He
saw great possibilities for using the machine to record the elders of his
tribe saying words and phrases in their native tongue, and thus preserve
his tribes language for future generations. In 2005, Brockie visited a
popular tribal elder, 109-year-old Theresa Lamebull, whose collected
knowledge amounted to a living linguistic history of a large chunk of the
Gros Ventre tribes culture.
The Gros Ventre people, as Brockie is quick to point out, have lived in the
north-central region of Montana for hundreds of years. But today there are
only a handful of speakers proficient in their ancient language. Brockie, a
high school and tribal college teacher, knew there would be a lot of
recording to do.
He was soon able to connect with a company selling the Palm Pilot-sized
gadgets and brought one over to Lamebulls house. She was immediately
What is it? she asked Brockie, to whom she had been teaching the Gros
Ventre language for several years.
Brockie explained that with a few button clicks and a couple of
touch-screen presses on the Phraselators small digital monitor, he could
record her words, and those words could then be translated back into
English (or any other language, for that matter).
Lamebull marveled at the complexity of the new technology, but she quickly
understood the purpose of what she called an aa si aaw, the Gros Ventre
phrase for computer.
After Lamebulls first recording session, Brockie played back her speech.
She initially laughed heartily, with tears running down her cheeks at the
sound of her voice. And then she asked to continue. Lamebull ultimately
recorded hundreds of unique Gros Ventre words and phrases into the
Phraselator before she passed away in August.
A wealth of knowledge left us when she died, Brockie says. I learned so
much from hernot only about the language, but also about taking
responsibility for carrying on our culture to our children.
Throughout Indian Country, hundreds of younger tribal citizens like Brockie
are diligently working with their elders to preserve and teach the unique
and complex linguistic traditions of their tribes. There are currently more
than 70 tribes using the Phraselator as a language preservation tool.
Indian linguists say the gadget has gained popularity at a critical time,
since most tribes have very few living members who know their native
tongue. It is increasingly rare to find young Indians who communicate with
their elders in the tribal language.
The story behind the Phraselators adaptation for tribal use begins with
Don Thornton, a Cherokee business owner who first read about the militarys
use of the gadget in Middle East war zones after 9/11. The weatherproof
handheld device was initially field-tested in Afghanistan in 2001, and has
been used by U.S. forces during the ongoing Iraq war to decipher Arabic
Thornton didnt care much about the translation of Arabic, but he did
believe the device could be easily used to combat the problem of decreasing
Indian language knowledge. Since the technology behind the device was
proprietary to a U.S. government contractor, he soon began campaigning for
the right to use the technology in the fight to save indigenous dialects.
Thornton found an ally in Voxtec, a Maryland-based hi-tech company, and his
own company, Thornton Media Inc., was ultimately granted permission to sell
the device to tribes and individual Indians. Voxtec, in turn, agreed to
supply the company with new shipments of Phraselators, and has since
assisted in the development of Indian-focused language revitalization
The Phraselator itself looks like a cross between a BlackBerry and a
walkie-talkie. It can record and translate both audio and video files, and
it stores language via a flash memory card. A one-gigabyte card will hold
up to 85,000 phrases or words, which can then be transferred to other
Theres a huge trend in Indian Country to revive the languages, Thornton
says. I think the feature of the Phraselator that really attracts tribes
is that they can do it all themselvesand they retain all copyright of
their materials. They dont have to depend on outsiders.
Lucinda Robbins, Thorntons grandmother and a master speaker of the
Cherokee language, was among the first to program the device. She had
previously worked with a non-Indian professor from an American university
who promised to create a paper-based Cherokee-to-Indian dictionary.
That man used to come to my house for three years asking how to say words
in Cherokee, Robbins recalls. Pretty soon it would be lists of phrases. I
fixed his lists for three years, and all I wanted was a copy of the
finished work, but never received one.
In light of that negative experience, Robbins is especially proud that her
grandsons business is now able to offer the Phraselator to all tribes, and
that the words recorded can be saved and shared through digital computer
Thorntons company offers on-site training to anyone who purchases more
than two of the devices, which cost about $3,300 per unit (plus additional
software costs of about $500).
That price tag has proven to be a barrier for some tribes, especially ones
that dont have strong grant-writing teams or extra funding from tribal
enterprises. Approximately half of the 70 tribes Thornton Media works with
have purchased Phraselators via grants from the U.S. government.
For those able to afford the technology, the biggest surprise seems to have
been how quickly many elders embraced it. Traditionally, youd think that
native-speaking elders would be technology-averse, Thornton says. I guess
thats sort of a stereotype I had in my head.
Wayne Wells, a Dakota language teacher and a member of the Prairie Island
Indian Community in Minnesota, has seen firsthand the appreciation many
elders have for the new method of language preservation.
When his tribe received a Phraselator, Wells paid a visit to the home of
Curt Campbell, one of the tribes few fluent elders. After asking how the
device is different from a tape recorder, Campbell was ready to begin.
"Where do you go to school? Wells asked.
Okay, Campbell responded. And then he clearly uttered the phrase mis hed
wabdawa into a headset microphone.
Campbell is well-versed in the oral traditions of the tribe and has shared
much of his knowledge with Wells. Ive learned a lot about our land, where
our people lived, Wells says. And how our language was formed by the
In a similar vein, Brockie reports that his recording sessions with
Lamebull and other elders taught him about being a better person. I
learned a lot of old stories and the way we used to do things a long time
ago, he says. And now I can tell those stories to my children.
Since beginning to sell the device, Thornton says he has encountered some
biased beliefs regarding how Indians should be learning language. For
example, critics have asked whether the Phraselator is antithetical to the
tribes traditional, community-focused method of learning.
Thornton admits that the best way to learn a language is from a native
speaker in the homefrom one speaker to another. However, because so few
American Indians have been able to retain their languages, that route is
Elders who are highly proficient in their language note that they often
spend their time teaching basic words and phrases to Indian students. A
tool like the Phraselator could allow these elders to educate students more
Not all fluent elders make good language teachers, moreover. Sometimes
elders cant get around well anymore, Wells explains. Being able to bring
their translations on the Phraselator to a classroom is sometimes much
Thornton stresses that Indians can be pro-technology without worrying that
theyve sold out their culture.
Some people want to see Indians sitting around in a lodge learning a
language from grandpa, with grandma tanning hides outside, he says. But
the fact is, technology is here, and I think more and more Indians are
eager to use it to help retain culture.
Rob Capriccioso is the editor of Big Head DC, a Washington news and gossip