March 27, 2023
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Cherokee on a smartphone: Part of a drive to save a language

Cherokee on a smartphone: Part of a drive to save a language

By itself, having the ability to learn smartphone dwelling screens in Cherokee gained’t be sufficient to safeguard the Indigenous language, endangered after a lengthy historical past of erasure. Nevertheless it could be a step towards immersing youthful tribal residents within the language spoken by a dwindling quantity of their elders.

That is the hope of Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Japanese Band of Cherokee Indians, who’s counting on extra inclusive shopper expertise — and the involvement of a main tech firm — to assist out.

Sneed and different Cherokee leaders have spent a number of months consulting with Lenovo-owned Motorola, which final week launched a Cherokee language interface on its latest line of telephones. Now cellphone customers will probably be ready to discover apps and toggle settings utilizing the syllable-based written kind of the language first created by the Cherokee Nation’s Sequoyah within the early 1800s. It is going to seem on the corporate’s high-end Edge Plus telephones after they go on sale within the spring.

“It’s just one more piece of a very large puzzle of trying to preserve and proliferate the language,” stated Sneed, who labored with members of his personal western North Carolina tribe and different Cherokee leaders who converse a totally different dialect in Oklahoma that’s extra extensively spoken but additionally endangered.

It’s not the primary time shopper expertise has embraced the language, as Apple, Microsoft and Google already allow individuals to configure their laptops and telephones in order that they’ll sort in Cherokee. However the Cherokee language preservationists who labored on the Motorola mission stated they tried to imbue it with the tradition — not simply the written symbols — they’re attempting to shield.

Take the beginning button on the Motorola interface, which options a Cherokee phrase that interprets into English as “just start.” That is a intelligent nod to the informal manner Cherokee elders would possibly use the phrase, stated Benjamin Frey, a member of the Japanese Band of Cherokee Indians and professor on the College of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It could have said ‘let’s get started’ in many different ways,” Frey stated. “But it said ‘halenagwu’ — just start. And that’s very Cherokee. I can kind of see an elder kind of shrugging and saying, ‘Well, I guess let’s do it.’ … It reminds me very fondly of how the elders talk, which is pretty exciting.”

When Motorola thought of incorporating Cherokee into its telephones, Frey was one of the individuals it reached out to. It was wanting to incorporate a language that the U.N.’s tradition company, UNESCO, had designated as among the many world’s most endangered but additionally one which had an energetic neighborhood of language students it may seek the advice of.

“We work with the people, not about the people,” stated Juliana Rebelatto, who holds the function of head linguist and globalization supervisor for Motorola’s cellular division. “We didn’t want to work on the language without them.”

Motorola modeled its Cherokee mission on a related Indigenous language revitalization mission Rebelatto helped work on in Brazil, the place the model — half of China-based mum or dad firm Lenovo — has a larger market share than it does within the U.S. The corporate final yr launched cellphone interfaces serving the Kaingang neighborhood of southern Brazil, and the Nheengatu neighborhood of the Amazonian areas of Brazil and neighboring international locations.

A number of huge tech firms have expressed curiosity lately in making their expertise work higher for endangered Indigenous languages, extra to present their good will or advance speech recognition analysis than to fulfill a enterprise crucial.

Microsoft’s textual content translation service not too long ago added Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut, spoken within the Canadian Arctic, and grassroots synthetic intelligence researchers are doing related tasks all through the Americas and past. However there’s a good distance to go earlier than digital voice assistants perceive these languages in addition to they do English — and for some languages the time is working out.

Frey and Sneed stated they acknowledge that some Cherokee can have considerations about tech firms making a product function of their work to protect their language — whether or not it is a text-based interface like Motorola’s or potential future tasks that would report speech to construct a voice assistant or real-time translator.

“I think it is a danger that companies could take this kind of material and take advantage of it, selling it without sharing the proceeds with community members,” Frey stated. “Personally, I decided that the potential benefit was worth the risk, and I’m hoping that that will be borne out.”

Frey didn’t develop up talking Cherokee, largely due to his grandmother’s experiences of being punished for talking the language when she was despatched to boarding faculty. For over 150 years, Indigenous kids within the U.S. and Canada had been taken from their communities and compelled into boarding faculties that targeted on assimilation.

She and others of her era had been crushed for talking the language, had her mouth washed out with cleaning soap and was advised that “English was the only way to get ahead in the world,” Frey stated. She didn’t go it on to Frey’s mother.

“This was a 13,000-year chain of intergenerational transfer of a language from parents to children that was broken because the federal government decided that English was the only language that was worthwhile,” he stated.

Solely about 225 of the roughly 16,000 members of the Japanese Band of Cherokee Indians spoke Cherokee fluently as their first language initially of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now I think we’re down to 172 or so,” stated Sneed, the principal chief. “So we’ve lost quite a few in the last couple of years.”

The Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation has extra audio system — an estimated 2,000 —- however they’re nonetheless a fraction of the greater than 400,000 individuals who comprise what’s the largest of the 574 federally acknowledged tribes within the U.S.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. stated in a assertion Monday that incorporating the language into expertise merchandise is “a win not only for Cherokee Language preservation, however for the perpetuation of all Native languages.”

Frey hopes the brand new instrument will probably be a conversation-starter between older Cherokee language audio system and their tech-savvy grandkids. However it would take extra immersive language interactions, not simply text-based smartphone interfaces, to actually make a distinction.

“If the youth today are watching TikTok videos, we need more TikTok videos in Cherokee,” said Frey. “If they’re paying attention to YouTube, we need more YouTubers creating content in Cherokee. If they’re trading memes online, we need more memes that are written in Cherokee.”

“We do have to make sure that the language continues to be used and continues to be spoken,” stated Frey. “Otherwise, it could die out.”


AP author Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.

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