New app will help preserve and teach Dakota language one word at a time

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Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye board chair and linguistic director Šišókaduta and executive director Ethan Neerdaels pose with Dakota teacher Nichole Subola.
Courtesy Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye (DIO)

Updated: 9:49 a.m.

A new app, which creators say is one of the largest dictionaries of its kind, will preserve and expand the use of the Dakota language one word at a time.

The dictionary app Dakhóta Iápi Wičhóie Wówapi has over 28,000 words, with more to come in later updates and editions. It’s a “talking dictionary” with nearly 40,000 audio files to listen to women and men speak Dakota terms. 

It also includes conjugations and verb changes from first-person to second-person to first-person plural. After five years of planning and development, it has finally launched on iOS.

“We're using modern technology to save our ancient languages. And it’s using the best of both to preserve our ancient knowledge,” said Šišókaduta, who was one of the leaders in the dictionary project.

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Šišókaduta, who is Dakota and whose English name is Joe Bendickson, is a senior teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota as well as the linguistic director of Dakhóta Iápi Okhódakičhiye, a nonprofit that helps preserve the Dakota language and released the app.

Wil Meya, the CEO of The Language Conservancy, assisted in the production of the app. The non-profit organization has helped “provide materials and resources, apps and many other kinds of technologies for over 50 endangered Indigenous languages across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Language Conservancy has developed 15 dictionaries,” explained Meya.

The new dictionary app was based on a previous Lakota dictionary the Language Conservancy launched in 2008.

“Lakota and Dakota are different enough that they are their own languages. I like to think of them as sister languages that are closely related, but just enough to be different. It's important to preserve all the dialects of our language,” Šišókaduta said. 

“Seeing the success of the Lakota language app, and print version of the dictionaries — it makes the Dakota community want to aspire to have their own things,” Šišókaduta said.

The number of people in the state who learned Dakota as their first language and still speak it is dwindling. Šišókaduta said a woman around 90 years old is believed to be the last first-language speaker among the four Dakota communities in Minnesota. 

“Other Dakota speakers from elsewhere moved into the state and now live here, but did not originate here. To our best knowledge, there are less than a few thousand who speak Dakota and Lakota combined,” Šišókaduta explained.

“Every community is different and has different resources and capacities. In this case, it’s a large dictionary, but also the challenge is there’s not a lot of speakers left,” Meya stated. 

“It is a well-documented language, but that doesn’t mean every word has been documented,” Šišókaduta added.

A screenshot of a Dakota dictionary app
A screenshot of the Dakhóta Iápi Wičhóie Wówapi dictionary app shows various Dakota words and definitions associated with the word "water."

The app lets users look up a word in English or Dakota and see options for the word — for example, a search for the word “water” returns dozens of options of nouns, adverbs, verbs and more, from one meaning “to drink water” to another meaning “to suffer thirst.” The app shows spelling and has recordings of both women and men saying each word. 

“When a dictionary like this is released in the community, then it really accelerates the learning,” Meya said.

The app is free to download along with a companion keyboard app. The Dakhóta Keyboard is separate from the dictionary app, for anyone who wants to write in Dakota on their phone, for example, to text or post on social media. You don’t need to download both apps to use the dictionary. 

“The dictionary already has the keyboard built in so it’s user-friendly that way,” Meya said.

Meya and Šišókaduta showcased the app at Grand Casino Mille Lacs during the Dakota and Ojibwe Languages Symposium last week, demonstrating it to elders and youth. 

“This is really exciting for language learners, teachers and people who want to support the language. It's going to be a great tool for them to help revitalize our language,” stated Šišókaduta.

The creators know that the Dakota dictionary app does not create fluency. 

“It’s a tool. It’s not going to learn it for you. You have to put in the work to learn the language and keep it alive yourself,” Šišókaduta said. 

Anyone can download the app and begin learning. 

“We want all Dakota people to have access to learn the language. I welcome anyone who wants to learn, but the language belongs to the Dakota people first and foremost,” Šišókaduta said.

Correction (Feb. 15, 2023): An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate title for Wil Meya. It has been updated.