MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A Defense Department translation device has some unexpected customers. Soldiers in Iraq used the Phraselator to give commands when there's no interpreter available. Soldiers speak into the handheld and it translates the phrase out loud.
Now, more than 50 Indian tribes have brought Phraselators with a different use in mind. Minnesota Public Radio Sea Stachura reports.
SEA STACHURA: The Phraselator is so sturdy that a Humvee can ride it over. It looks like a cross between a walkie-talkie and a Palm Pilot, but it weighs about three pounds. Each costs over $3,000. Most tribes buy about a half dozen of them. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in southern California, flush with gaming money, just bought 1,000 of them, one for almost every member. The price? About $3 million. Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro says the tool gives instant access to the language.
Mr. MARK MACARRO (Tribal chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians): You're able to verbally query the device to the information that you want. Now, the presumption is the information that you need is in there and has been recorded by somebody. But once that's accomplished, it's very powerful and very quick in thinking.
STACHURA: Macarro said in his band, all native speakers of his tribe's language, Luiseno, have died. The tribe is now teaching school children the language in the hopes to developing more fluent speakers and language teachers. But most parents have few Luiseno skills and he hopes Phraselator will change that. If a parent wants to say answer the phone in Luiseno, she can say the English phrase into the device and it'll translate. Don Thornton started selling Phraselators to tribes two years ago after pleading with the Defense Department that let them market the tool to the civilian sector.
Mr. DON THORNTON (Phraselator distributor): They simply didn't feel there was a market for it in Indian country. You know, not being part of the community, they didn't know about the resurgence in interest in teaching the languages, because this is a very critical time for American Indian languages.
STACHURA: Thornton says this tool appeals to tribes because it doesn't require a linguist. Prairie Island Indian Community in southern Minnesota saw the tool as an easy way to preserve the language while tutoring students. Language instructor Wayne Wells says the tribe only has five fluent speakers left. Elder Curt Campbell is one of them.
In Campbell's living room with photos of elders and grandchildren everywhere, Wells and Campbell sits side by side recording onto the Phraselator's flashcards.
Mr. WAYNE WELLS (Dakota Language Instructor; Tribal Member): Where do you go to school?
Mr. CURT CAMPBELL (Elder, Prairie Island Indian Community): Okay.
Mr. WELLS: Are you ready? One, two, three -
Mr. CAMPBELL: (Speaking Native American language)
Mr. WELLS: Okay. He goes to school here at the University of Minnesota.
Mr. CAMPBELL: I don't know if there's a word for university. They'll say a whole paragraph for this one. Sure. That is Minnesota (Native American language spoken).
STACHURA: University of Minnesota linguist Nancy Stenson isn't as excited about this technology. She argues that people don't learn languages in chunks like this but by applying its rules. She considers recorded language, dead language.
Ms. NANCY STENSON (Linguist, University of Minnesota): I think the way a language is going to be preserved and brought back in the common use is by speaking it to other people, and only by speaking it to other people, including ones who don't, maybe, have a good command.
STACHURA: She also worries that tools like this could become a crutch. Back in California, Pachanga chairman Mark McArrow considers comments like these to be patronizing to Laseno Indians.
Mr. McARROW: We have 1,400 tribal members and, you know, in California, a state with 38 million people, you don't run into a lot of Laseno Indians and still, you know, that criticism might work in some other places but not here, not where language is nearly extinct. Any crutch, give us as many crutches as there are, you know, and we'll investigate them all and use them all.
STACHURA: McArrow says the Phraselator isn't a toy but an effort on the part of his tribe to regain its culture. He thinks the cost is small in comparison to what might be gained, a tribe that speaks the same language as its ancestors.
For NPR News, I'm Sea Stachura in Rochester, Minnesota.
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