Military Gadget Saving Endangered Languages

The "Phraselator" is helping linguists translate and preserve Native American speech.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, we have all been there. You're talking to a Cherokee medicine man. You want to ask, does this look infected? But you draw a total blank.

Well, dear listeners, those days are over, thanks to a handheld voice translation device known as the Phraselator. You say the phrase you want to know into it, and it spits back out in the real voice of a native speaker the thing that you're trying to say. The technology was first used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan back in 2001 to help soldiers communicate in Farsi and Arabic. But for the past two years, one company's been programming the Phraselator to capture the nearly extinct languages of Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada.

Here's a clip from the Phraselator's promotional video.

(Soundbite of Phraselator's Promotional video)

Unidentified Woman #1: This unit is programmed in Cherokee, in both the male and female voice. Are you Indian?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Cherokee spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: Computer, switch to Cherokee male. Are you Indian?

Unidentified Man: (Cherokee spoken)

BURBANK: We talked to Don Thornton. He's the guy who got this technology directly from the State Department and brought it to the tribes.

So how did you first become aware of this device called the Phraselator?

Mr. DON THORNTON (Thornton Media): Well, we read about it in the newspaper and on the Internet shortly after 9/11. The technology was actually created for the U.S. military after 9/11, and we got the idea that we could use it with native languages. We've been involved in native language revitalization for about 13 years now. So we started lobbying the defense contractor for permission to use the technology for native languages, but…

BURBANK: Because the Phraselator, at that point, was being used - can you tell it just like saying the word Phraselator? It was being used in places, like Afghanistan by the U.S. military, as I understand it.

Mr. THORNTON: That's correct. They would use it at, for instance, at checkpoints to say things like, we're going to search your car or certain phrases like that, so - to alleviate the misunderstandings in the field. So it was actually created as tool to save lives in the field on both sides.

So we got the idea that we could use it for native languages, but the defense contractor, they weren't too hot on the idea for probably a year and half. They basically told us no for about a year and a half. The reason they gave was that it was on the State Department of protected technologies, and it was, in fact, illegal for a civilian to use it or to own it. So we had to get special permission from the State Department for that.

The other reason is they just didn't feel there was a market for it.

BURBANK: Well, before we get into the way that you guys have been using it to try to sort of keep alive some of these traditional Native American languages -before we get into that, let's just actually talk about the Phraselator itself.

Mr. THORNTON: Well, it's a handheld unit with a big glass screen on the front of it. Larger than a PDA, it weighs less than a pound. And what you do is you use a laptop and you program phrases - pre-program phrases in your language onto the unit, and then you hook a cable from the laptop to the unit. You press a button, and it all goes into the unit. And then it can be used three different ways. You can touch the screen, and it'll say that English phrase in your language. You can also use a toggle button, or you can actually hold the button down, say the phrase, and it will translate it to your language.

BURBANK: So the device is basically content-neutral, if you will, when it starts out. It's a blank slate.

Mr. THORNTON: That's correct.

BURBANK: And you have to put in all of the stuff from whatever language it is that you're hoping it will eventually then be able to spit back out on command?

Mr. THORNTON: That's correct. And when we - we usually do a two-day training with the tribe. And during that time, we will spend the first day teaching the software, and the second day will - the tribal members will actually start building the language modules. And it's very typical that we can get from four to 600 phrases recorded just on the second day. And after we leave, the tribe is now self-sufficient, and they can continue recording on their own. And the unit will hold tens of thousands of phrases.

BURBANK: Do you have a Phraselator with you right now?

Mr. THORNTON: Sure.

BURBANK: Could you give me some sort of a demonstration? I know it's a little awkward with the phone, but maybe you could sort of say something into the Phraselator and kind of hold it up to the phone. Maybe we'll be able to hear its response.

Mr. THORNTON: Sure, no problem. I have a Cherokee module here. This was recorded, actually, with my grandmother, Lucinda Robbins, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She's a master speaker of the language. So I'll say the phrase, and the Phraselator will repeat it in Cherokee.

Brush your teeth.

Ms. LUCINDA ROBBINS: (Cherokee spoken)

BURBANK: And was that your grandmother's voice?

Mr. THORNTON: That's correct. Most of the speakers that we deal with are elders. And typically, the process works like this: You come up with your phrase list, and then you submit it to the elder or to the elders, and the elders will sit around at a table and go over that list one by one. And they'll edit it for their language, because the only one who could really edit these lists are the master speakers themselves. Once you've completed your list, the elder sits down with a headphone/microphone on and just records the phrases one by one after having prepared the list. It goes pretty quickly.

BURBANK: Is there a danger of mistakes now getting passed on through history? Because if somebody who is an elder seems to remember that this is how you say needlepoint or whatever, and they're maybe a little wrong, that's now maybe -in 10, 15 years - the only record of that word, and maybe it's wrong.

Mr. THORNTON: Well, let me start off by saying that the Phraselator is not really meant to be a preservation tool, but more of a revitalization tool. So, hopefully, you're going to be producing more speakers as you go along. The other part of it is that's the reason that the elders sit down at the table beforehand with the written list, and they can all go over it and decide on a how to say certain words. But what you do find is you have certain dialectical differences between the tribe - within the tribe, of the same language.

Now, to account for that, what we do is you can switch between languages or speakers instantly. You could, for instance, say - in fact, this machine that I have is programmed in several different languages, so they also have a Comanche speaker on here. So I'll say like this: Computer, switch to Comanche. Now it switches over to the Comanche language, and now everything is by another speaker. So I can say: Did you finish your homework?

Unidentified Woman: (Comanche spoken)

Mr. THORNTON: See? So you can…

BURBANK: Wow. That's amazing.

Mr. THORNTON: Yeah, you can instantly switch, and you could have a dozen or 20 speakers on there if you want.

BURBANK: Well, now, if this isn't meant as a preservation device, if these are not supposed to be little kind of vaults of, you know, things in this particular language, let's say you have a Phraselator. Let's say it has all this stuff loaded in for Cherokee. Who's now using this? Is - little kids listening to it like an iPod on their way to school?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, the tribes will use it different ways, and we're working now with more than 75 tribes. And I would say out of all the tribes, probably each tribe are using it differently. But the typical way a tribe will use it is they'll have a master emersion program, where you have a master speaker who works with anywhere from six to 12 apprentice speakers. And what they'll do is they'll assign a Phraselator to each apprentice, and then these apprentices themselves go on to become teachers. So, in that way, it's acting as sort of a 24-hour tutor to the apprentice.

BURBANK: How many Phraselators have you sold?

Mr. THORNTON: Well, we're working, again, with about 75 tribes. I would say the typical tribe buys about 10, although we have had certain tribes who have purchased more. There was actually a tribe in Southern California, the Pachange band of Luiseno Indians, and they purchased one for every tribal member, and they have a thousand tribal members.

BURBANK: How much did they sell for?

Mr. THORNTON: They're 3,300 each.

BURBANK: Are you actually making money off of these, or is this just a financial labor of love for you?

Mr. THORNTON: No, we're a for-profit business. Although, I will say, without the large sales, we do operate pretty close to break even.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: I was just going to ask how you say goodbye and thank you in Cherokee.

Mr. THORNTON: Well, you basically say wado.

BURBANK: How about saying thank you?

Mr. THORNTON: Well that's thank you, but that's (unintelligible) both.

BURBANK: I see. Oh, that's simple. I like this Cherokee. I could get to like this if it's that simple.

Well, Don Thornton, president of Thornton Media, a company that is distributing and selling Phraselators to different tribes, wado for being on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Mr. THORNTON: Okay, wado.

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