Endangered Alaskan Language Goes Digital

Inupiaq, the language spoken by the Inupiat people of Northern Alaska, is both complex and endangered. Rosetta Stone, a Virginia-based company that produces multimedia language courses, has worked with older speakers to prepare materials to help preserve Inupiaq. Martha Woodroof reports from member station WMRA.

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Many Native American languages are in danger of vanishing, including Inupiaq -the language of the Inupiat Eskimos in Alaska. Well, a language software company, thousands of miles away in Virginia, has created some high-tech help.

From member station WMRA, Martha Woodroof reports.

MARTHA WOODROOF: Kotzebue, Alaska is among a scattering of villages settled hundreds of years ago by Inupiat Eskimos. Sixty-two-year-old Willie Goodwin is one of the few modern Inupiat who still speaks Inupiaq.

Mr. WILLIE GOODWIN (Inupiat, Kotzebue, Alaska): (Inupiaq spoken) I just asked you how you are, and I said I'm fine.

WOODROOF: By the end of the last century, Inupiaq, like most Native American languages, had all but disappeared from an increasingly Americanized tribal culture. For generations, children had been required to speak English in school. And as a result, few of them speak their traditional languages today, including the younger members of Willie Goodwin's own family.

Mr. GOODWIN: They're scared of me because without our language, our culture dies, you know. Like when we speak of food and what we hunt and how we hunt and where we hunt, most of our lands that I know is in Inupiaq names.

WOODROOF: Rosetta Stone is a Harrisonburg, Virginia language software company. Their immersion approach presents students with four onscreen pictures at a time, and a caption written and spoken by a native speaker. Match the caption with the correct image and you're allowed to go on to the next group of images.

The company has recently begun creating software for languages like Inupiaq that are spoken by fewer and fewer people. Marion Bittinger, who manages Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language Division, says they use their standard template of images as a turning point in working with Inupiaq native speakers.

Ms. MARION BITTINGER (Senior Project Manager, Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program): The job of their language team is to customize the product to reflect any unique language characteristics.

WOODROOF: Such as, instead of only having singular and plural forms, Inupiaq nouns take a different dual form when referring to a pair of things. Bittinger says there were also cultural adjustments suggested that influenced image selection for the final product.

Ms. BITTINGER: We just don't have cheese in our environment we'd like to substitute whale blubber, or we don't really want that picture of a cat, we'd prefer a picture of a polar bear.

WOODROOF: Senior Rosetta Stone writer, Jack Marmostein, says cultures with a rich oral tradition seemed to find their software a good match.

Mr. JACK MARMOSTEIN (Senior Writer, Rosetta Stone Language Library): A lot of these languages don't have long written traditions, but since our multimedia CDs worked with soundtracks and visuals as well as written, people can learn in whatever style suits them best.

WOODROOF: Rosetta Stone retains ownership and distribution rights over its other language software. However, CEO Tom Adams says the Endangered Language Division operates on a different contractual model. The tribes own the finished product and they control distribution.

Mr. TOM ADAMS (CEO, Rosetta Stone): They consider their language sacred and an inherent part of their culture, and don't want it to be sold and learned by people outside of their own community.

WOODROOF: Thirty-five-year-old Henry Goodwin(ph), Willie Goodwin's son, plans to learn his tribe's language using Rosetta Stone software.

Mr. HENRY GOODWIN (Willie Goodwin's Son): Listening to the elders that come over and visit or my parents speak the language, I couldn't understand, it's part of our culture and I'd never did learn language growing up.

WOODROOF: Henry Goodwin says there are conversations he wants to have that he can only have in Inupiaq.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

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