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Saving the language of the Cherokee

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  • Rob Schmidt
    http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2010/05/14/saving-language-cherokee Home Blogs Americas Saving the language of the Cherokee By Rob Reynolds in Americas
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 11, 2010
      http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2010/05/14/saving-language-cherokee

      Home > Blogs > Americas

      Saving the language of the Cherokee

      By Rob Reynolds in Americas on May 15th, 2010

      At a primary school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Native American nation is fighting hard to keep its ancestral language
      alive for a new generation.

      It is a total immersion programme, with all lessons taught in Cherokee.

      Children read and write the language, using a syllabary developed by a self-taught genius named Sequoyah, who brought literacy to
      the Cherokee in the 19th century.

      And a 21st century tool is helping the language of Sequoyah survive: the Askongodeesk-or as we say in English, the laptop computer.

      Teaching tools

      Each kid in the 4th grade classroom I visited was assigned a laptop equipped with a Cherokee keyboard. Like children everywhere,
      they were busy instantly-messaging each other-in Cherokee.

      "They can use iChat and speak in Cherokee or they can converse with one anther in the syllabary on line," says Cherokee Nation's
      language director, Samantha Benn-Duke. "So, we will be revitalising the language in that manner."

      Technology can be an outstanding tool to preserve and expand endangered languages, says Swarthmore College linguist K David
      Harrison, who works with the Living Tongues Institute.

      "What we're seeing happening all over the globe is that small languages are levering the newest technologies. You can now have a
      small or minority language represented in an iPhone app, on a social networking site, and by putting these small languages out
      through these new technological channels - this is an amazing way to revitalise languages."

      In a kindergarten class, the teacher held up card with pictures: a shirt, shoes, a hat. Little boys and girls lustily shouted out
      the Cherokee name for each object.

      Teaching Cherokee at a very early age is essential, says the Cherokee Nation language director. She said that of the fluent
      Cherokee-speakers in the about 20,000-member tribe, most were older than age 50.

      "The language is being revitalized," Benn-Duke said. The immersion classes were a sign "that the language is continuing to grow, or
      actually is beginning to grow and thrive, where it was stagnating before".

      Owning the language

      "The only people who can really save a language [are] the community which speaks it," Harrison says. That community "essentially
      owns that language, as a kind of intellectual property. They can save the language; they can make a strategic decision that they're
      not going to give it up".

      The Cherokee nation in Oklahoma has made that strategic decision. The giggling kindergarteners chanting nursery rhymes in Cherokee,
      Benn-Duke says firmly, "will be bilingual, multilingual".

      "They will be world citizens and yes, they will be passing this on to their own children."

      Nine-year-old Lauren Hummingbird is already passing on the language of her forefathers-to her own mother and father.

      "I'm teaching them to speak Cherokee," the confident nine-year-old told me. "They used to take classes but now they don't. So I'm
      the teacher at home."

      It's a glimmer of hope for speakers of other endangered languages - provided they have the resources and the will to fight for
      cultural survival.
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