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LiveAndTell, A Crowdsourced Quest To Save Native American Languages

Lakota Sioux

While you won't have any trouble finding a way to learn Spanish, French, or German in the United States, brushing up on your Lakota or Navajo isn't so easy.

The Endangered Language Fund projects that half of the languages spoken on earth will disappear in the next century, and Native American tongues are among them. The Administration for Native Americans reports that when the U.S. was founded, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken. That number has since dropped to 175, and only 20 are taught to children. The rest, it says, "are classified as deteriorating or nearing extinction."

In an attempt to preserve endangered indigenous dialects such as Lakota and Ho Chunk, South Dakota-based programmer Biagio Arobba has built LiveAndTell, a user-generated content site for sharing and learning Native languages. It can work for any language, but his passion is to preserve the endangered tongues you won't find in textbooks, language programs, or widely taught in classrooms. "For Native American languages, there's a scarcity of learning materials," Arobba says. "Native American languages are in a crisis and we have not moved very far beyond paper and pencil methods."

Arobba, 32, is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. He built LiveAndTell as an efficient, easy-to-use way to pass the Lakota Sioux language (and others) from older generations to younger ones. An accompanying Facebook page is intended to introduce the languages to a broader audience.

LiveAndTell lets users create "audio tags" for pictures, similar to tagging on Facebook or Flickr. An audio recorder allows a Lakota speaker to record a message with each picture. They can also post a series of audio or text below each picture. In essence, it’s Flickr meets Rosetta Stone. The pictures and album can be embedded into other websites as well. LiveAndTell has no upfront participation fees; users can sign in and start creating content immediately.

As LiveAndTell expands, Arobba is working with area tribes to integrate the website into tribal sites, and is running workshops so Lakota speakers can learn how to input photos, audio, and text. He's planning mobile versions for the iPhone and Android platforms. He's also collaborating with Oglala Lakota College and others to apply for National Science Foundation funding.

The potential for learning languages online is already vast: Wikiversity, a multilingual hub project of the Wikimedia Foundation, is building encyclopedic information in a variety of languages. Livemocha.com offers Gaelic (Irish or Scottish), among dozens of other languages. Babbel.com boasts more than a million users learning several languages, and has mobile apps to build vocabulary. And the ambitious Rosetta Project by the Long Now Foundation aims to document what it estimates as 7,000 languages currently in use, starting with 500.

But the opportunities are fewer for indigenous languages. While technology has the potential to help preserve indigenous languages and maintain indigenous communities, the National Science Foundation notes that globalization threatens to diminish the native languages and change the way indigenous people live and communicate.

Language market leader Rosetta Stone does have an endangered language program, which in Arobba's view, is useful, but limited, since it takes a long time to produce a small number of languages. There are currently a half dozen languages in the program, and each takes roughly two years to capture and produce. It also released a Navajo language program in 2010. A spokeswoman at Rosetta Stone said its products are scientifically grounded in the process of learning languages because their endangered language programs are led by "scientists, linguists, and people immersed in these cultures and languages."

In contrast, Arobba says LiveAndTell is organic and culturally enriching. "There is civic value in posting content," he says. "For the people posting the content, there's a cultural context there, too." Native speakers can take photos and record words depicting life familiar to the young people who are learning the languages in their own communities. It also doesn't require high production costs the way Rosetta Stone's programs do. "The main thing," Arobba says, "is just lowering the barriers and the costs for everybody."

Follow author Paul Glader on Twitter @paulglader or @WiredAcademic.

[Image via Flickr user Hamner_Photos]

Read More: Preserving Indigenous Languages Via Twitter