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The Phraselator II

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.american.com/archive/2007/october-10-07/the-phraselator-ii The Phraselator II By Rob Capriccioso Tuesday, October 9, 2007 Filed under: Science &
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 15, 2007

      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 tribe’s 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 tribe’s 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 Lamebull’s 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 Phraselator’s 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 Lamebull’s 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 her—not 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 Phraselator’s adaptation for tribal use begins with
      Don Thornton, a Cherokee business owner who first read about the military’s
      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 didn’t 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

      “There’s 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 themselves—and they retain all copyright of
      their materials. They don’t have to depend on outsiders.”

      Lucinda Robbins, Thornton’s 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
      grandson’s business is now able to offer the Phraselator to all tribes, and
      that the words recorded can be saved and shared through digital computer

      Thornton’s 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 don’t 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, you’d think that
      native-speaking elders would be technology-averse,” Thornton says. “I guess
      that’s 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 tribe’s 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. “I’ve 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 home—from one speaker to another. However, because so few
      American Indians have been able to retain their languages, that route is
      often impractical.

      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 can’t 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
      they’ve 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
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