A handheld that saves native languages?

Wayne Wells
Wayne Wells, a Dakota language teacher and tribal member, started teaching language classes three years ago. He said no one else was making the effort, and he didn't want to lose the culture in the Dakota language.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

No one walks around Prairie Island speaking Dakota, and only a few elders even know it. Wayne Wells, a Dakota language teacher and tribal member, learned Dakota in college, but he doesn't think he's fluent. Still, it's his goal to get the tribe's children speaking Dakota everyday.

"My ancestors are breathing through my lungs when I speak the language," he says. "They're breathing again, they're living again through my soul, my breath. It's precious. That's how I see it. And you start teaching kids that, your ancestors are here still."

Phrasalator
A Phraselator is a handheld device which can give instant translation to phrases spoken into its microphone. The military uses it in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Three years ago Wells started weekly language classes for adults and kids. The Phraselator is a new addition. Wells shows how it works.

"Five," Wells says into the device. "Zapta," it responds. "So I can so like, 'How are you,'" he continues. "Duke yahoe?" "That's how the soldiers use it."

The tribe bought five. Each costs $3,300.

Wells wants kids to take these devices home. The hope is that a parent, who doesn't speak Dakota, could have family dinner with the Phraselator at his side. He could ask, "Please pass the rice," in the language. If a child doesn't know the response, she also could use Phraselator to figure it out.

Curt Campbell
Curt Campbell is one of a few fluent elders. Campbell grew up with his grandparents who only spoke Mdewakantonwan, a dialect of Dakota.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

The device looks like a cross between a Palm Pilot and a walkie-talkie. It retrieves language from a flash card full of recorded phrases. A one gig card will store up to 85,000 items, but you have to enter them yourself.

Curt Campbell is one of a few fluent elders. In Campbell's living room, with photos of elders and grandchildren everywhere, Wells and Campbell sit side by side, recording.

"Where do you go to school?" Wells reads from a phrase list.

"Okay," Campbell says.

"Ready? One, two, three..."

"Mis hed wabdawa," Campbell says into a headset microphone.

Campbell and Wells then record variations of this sentence. Then Wells asks Campbell to say, "He goes to the University of Minnesota."

"I don't know if there is a word for university," Campbell laughs. "I'm going to have to say a whole paragraph for this one."

"Well, what would you say?" Wells asks.

Alan Childs
Prairie Island Dakota member Alan Childs Jr. teaches drumming and singing to other tribal members. He wants more people to learn Dakota.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Campbell starts into a long description of an institute for higher learning. He is 72 years old, and when elders like Campbell die, the tribe loses people who know enough to apply the old language to new words.

Tribal member Alan Childs watches the activity. He says speaking Dakota teaches self-worth.

"Other than being brown-skinned and darker features and things like that, [language] is our identity. That is our number one identity. And it's also how we keep our customs and traditions," Childs explains.

Fifty-five tribes bought Phraselators in the last year.

But University of Minnesota linguist Nancy Stenson says preserving language doesn't need fancy gadgets. She believes technological tools frequently become a linguistic crutch.

"I think there's a danger there in that people will abdicate personal responsibility for language," she says.

Nancy Stenson
University of Minnesota linguist Nancy Stenson says when less than twenty people speak a language, it's moribund, and hugely difficult to revive.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Stenson says people may think, if it's recorded, it's safe. But she says recorded language is fossilized language.

"I think the way a language is going to be preserved and brought back into common use is by speaking it to other people, and only by speaking it, even to people who maybe don't have a good command," she says.

The Mohawk, for example, decided to use Mohawk in all public places, including the grocery store. Some Ojibwe bands write Ojibwe rock songs and have immersion programs. Stenson says these types of programs keep language buoyant and flexible.

She says people don't learn languages in chunks but by applying rules. Without those rules, new speakers are stuck when they try to say a unrecorded phrase.

Wayne Wells says the Phraselator is only a tool. In the last three years he says he's seen progress in his students.

"I was discouraged for a little while, because it was like, they're never gonna get this," he says during a break from recording. "But then, all of a sudden, they started speaking. Another milestone is, the intermediate kids that have been coming for a couple years? They're teaching the beginning class now."

Those intermediate kids are 11 years old.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.