Software Company Helps Revive 'Sleeping' Language Rosetta Stone, which focuses on teaching languages to tourists and business travelers, is helping the Chitimacha tribe of Louisiana resuscitate its native tongue. The last native speaker passed away in 1940, and the tribe hopes shiny new software will attract youth to the language.
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Software Company Helps Revive 'Sleeping' Language

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Software Company Helps Revive 'Sleeping' Language

Software Company Helps Revive 'Sleeping' Language

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It's estimated that Native Americans spoke hundreds of different languages before Europeans arrived on this continent. Most of those languages eventually became extinct. Now, many tribes are trying to revive dead or so-called sleeping languages.

NPR's Larry Abramson has the story of one such tribe, the Chitimacha of Louisiana.

LARRY ABRAMSON: This small training room in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is alive with the sounds of a once-dead language.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: That's how you say they are eating in Chitimacha, once the spoken language of Native Americans in southern Louisiana.

Today, there are just over 1,000 members of the tribe living on the bayou south of Lafayette. Their tribe lost their last native speaker in 1940.

Ms. MARION BITTINGER (Manager, Endangered Language Program, Rosetta Stone Inc.): That's what's made the Chitimacha program unique. Their language has been a sleeping language for about 60 years.

ABRAMSON: That's Marion Bittinger, manager of the endangered language program at Rosetta Stone. The popular language instruction company is best known for its bright yellow kiosks in airports and for heavily promoting its software for spoken languages. But as a public service, the company has been working with native tribes to save their dead or dying languages. She says other native groups could turn to elderly native speakers.

Ms. BITTINGER: But in the Chitimacha project, that hasn't been the case. So it's been a very challenging project but also very, very inspiring.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken).

ABRAMSON: What the Chitimacha had were hundreds of hours of scratchy recordings on wax cylinders along with extensive notes from linguist Morris Swadesh. Swadesh recorded Chitimacha Chief Ben Paul before his death in 1934. Over the past decade, the tribe has been using these bits and pieces to build a curriculum and to start teaching Chitimacha to schoolchildren.

Kimberly Walden is cultural director of the tribe.

Ms. KIMBERLY WALDEN (Cultural Director, Chitimacha Tribe): It helps preserve cultural identity. And it really is like a missing piece to what - you know, those of us growing up without a language, it was something we always dreamed of.

ABRAMSON: Walden says the tribe turned to Rosetta Stone because they felt that a bright, shiny software program would make the language more appealing to young people.

Just ask teacher Rachel Vilcan. She is sitting in front of a computer screen, following the prompts that ask her to match Chitimacha words with pictures, one of the hallmarks of Rosetta Stone's language system. She recognizes members of the tribe who were used in pictures for this program. Vilcan says her students want to make this language their own.

Ms. RACHEL VILCAN (Cultural Teacher, Chitimacha): LOL: Theyre like - they want to learn how to translate that so they can start texting. All the kids want to do nowadays is text. So when they wanted to start using their language in text, and I thought it was very - it touched my heart.

(Soundbite of computer voice)

Ms. SANDRA BOUTTE: (Foreign language spoken).

ABRAMSON: Sandra Boutte used to teach Chitimacha in the classroom, but lately she's been focused on the effort to get this software boxed up and ready to go.

Ms. BOUTTE: I was actually one of the voicers in the product, yes, so...

ABRAMSON: So you're correcting yourself here.

Ms. BOUTTE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Rosetta Stone uses voice recognition software to correct your pronunciation. Sandra Boutte says even though she used to teach the language, she still has to work at keeping her skills up.

Ms. BOUTTE: That's why I would love everybody around our office to learn it so that I could continue to speak on a day-to-day basis, since I'm not teaching anymore.

ABRAMSON: Don't expect to see Chitimacha software at your local kiosk. The tribe will own this product and hopes to distribute it free of charge to members. Rosetta Stone is planning other native language projects, including Navajo which is still spoken by thousands of members but is in decline.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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