Mohawk community taps software to preserve language

With the prospect that speakers of the Kanien’keha language may pass away in 15 to 20 years, the Mohawk community has put in place a plan to revitalize its mother tongue that includes developing language-learning software.

It’s working with Fairfield

Language Technologies, the Harrisonburg, Va.-based developers of Rosetta Stone language-learning software.

Over the years, the Mohawk community of Kahnawa:ke near Montreal found that people continuously end up at the initial language level despite being offered courses and programs, said Kanatakta, executive director of Kanien’kehaka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa, or Community Language and Cultural Centre. (He uses only one name.)

Only 500 to 800 people belonging to the world’s 35,000-strong Mohawk community can speak Kanien’keha, Kanatakta said. Ninety-five per cent of them are in their late50s.

“”Rosetta Stone, with its promise, will give the beginner speaker the confidence to move beyond that beginner’s level, and will be able to take our human resources, which are dwindling, and put them into the whole process with students or learners at a higher level,”” he said.

Language software will give community members the opportunity to learn in front of a computer screen “”without having to be in front of other people and making mistakes,”” he explained.

He said the Mohawks looked at several software options but chose Rosetta Stone because it’s a program that would capture people’s attention and keep them focused on the task at hand. We also looked at the reputation of Rosetta Stone and the number of people in languages and groups who have used the program.””

Rosetta Stone has focused on preserving endangered languages because historically North American languages have been “”disadvantaged by English and the government’s policies”” to remove native Americans from their communities and force them to speak English, in effect robbing several generations of aboriginal people of their native tongue, explained Ilse Ackerman, program manager of the endangered language program of Fairfield Language Technologies.

The language-learning software teaches by immersion, which means “”at no point is the learner told to make a native word equivalent to an English word,”” said Ackerman.

Instead the software, which teaches reading, speaking, listening comprehension and writing, uses photos and images and teaches completely in context so that meanings of words aren’t lost as the student progresses through the program.

But the structure of Kanien’keha, which doesn’t follow the rules of European languages like French or Spanish, is one of the challenges the Mohawk community has come across as it digitally records its language, Kanatakta said.

“”For instance, one of the photos has a young boy who’s falling. So in English you’d say, ‘He’s falling.’ But in our language, it’s not quite the same because there’s detail. Is the person falling forward? Is he falling down?””

The first language level will be finished at the end of September, at which time level two will be developed for a 2005 completion date, said Kanatakta.

Kanien’kehaka Onkwawen:na Raotitiohkwa also offers adult and children’s immersion programs, courses to the community at large and TV and radio programming in Kanien’keha.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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