Speaking Local

Article Featured Image

"Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures.”

Those words, spoken by singer/songwriter and Native American activist Buffy Sainte Marie, weren’t related to speech technology. But these days speech software is helping to keep such a language and culture very much alive.

The Ojibwe Nation is the third largest group of Native Americans in North America, with some 57,000 living in the United States and 78,000 living in Canada. The Ojibwe language, also called Ojibwemowin, is the fourth most widely spoken Native American language in North America, but with many local variations and dialects. Even though Ojibwemowin might be more widely spoken than other Native American languages, Mary Hermes, an associate professor of education in the Center for Indigenous Language and Culture Revitalization at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and her partner, graphic designer/artist Kevin Roach, recognized an imminent threat to their culture as it was becoming increasingly difficult to find Ojibwemowin speakers. 

“On our Wisconsin reservation, there are fewer than three speakers,” Hermes explains. On some reservations, all Ojibwemowin speakers are gone, and while some people were attending immersion schools, Hermes wanted to reach more students and revitalize the language. “We realized, from a learning perspective, that there are no natural conversations to learn from,” she says. “Those ways of speaking are so endangered. They don’t actually exist in the everyday discourse domains. The first thing to restore is that simple back and forth between people.”  

After Hermes and Roach saw a simple program used to teach Turkish through soap opera clips online, they set out to get funding to create similar teaching tools for students who wanted to learn Ojibwemowin. That process eventually led them to Transparent Language, a language-learning software provider based in Nashua, N.H. Hermes contacted CEO Michael Quinlan, who offered his software and training free to Hermes’ and Roach’s burgeoning organization, Grassroots Indigenous Media (GIM). “I really couldn’t believe,” Hermes says. “This is a businessman, and he’s saying he’s going to give us all this stuff.”

“Obviously we’re a business, and we have to meet payroll, but more important to us is the idea that we do things to help out in the language community,” says Chuck McGonagle, senior vice president and general manager of Transparent Language.

With Transparent’s help and government funding, Hermes and Roach created the program, Ojibwemodaa, which translates to “talk Ojibwe.”

The software includes several ways to learn Ojibwemowin within two central engines. Within the Language Pro part of the program (originally called Learn Language Now), the user can, among other activities, watch videos of conversations subtitled with two texts of Ojibwemowin and English, play interactive games, and participate in conversations. The system also can be configured to adapt to the user’s needs. For example, the subtitled English text in the video segment can be hidden so the learner can be more immersed in the conversation.

The other tool, called Byki, can be used to create flash cards of vocabulary words that often derive from conversations shown in the video section. As such, the emphasis is placed on the user learning contextually, reinforcing the lessons in more than one way.

“One of the overall benefits is that we didn’t have to build a dictionary,”    Mconagle points out. “Also, we’re not doing speech recognition. We’re comparing digital signatures of wave patterns across a series of spectrums to provide comparative information as compared to that of the native speaker. We don’t need to train the system to recognize a speaker’s voice.” Additionally, the program has a “grammar tree” that defines words in grammatical contexts. 

A potential downside of the program is that a fluent speaker’s language might have some grammatical inaccuracies, but Hermes contends that the software offers the unique opportunity to learn how people actually speak, which is especially important considering the dearth of actual Ojibwemowin speakers. Hermes goes on to say that the unique setup of the program for them surpassed other language programs because it derived lessons from unscripted movies where people engage in real conversations. “If you ever go to a language class, you speak like a textbook. We don’t speak in full sentences; we don’t speak with punctuation and grammatical correctness,” Hermes states. “We use lots of little words that are useful, which are interesting and useful if you’re trying to revitalize the language.”

Also, because the Byki flash-card software doesn’t require training and is easily customizable, other tribes are now using it to share and teach their languages as well. “The people at the Indian Center in Chicago thought the vocabulary lists were a breakthrough to the entire way they’re trying to use language,” Hermes says. In addition, the Menominee Nation, a tribe that is closely related to the Ojibwe Nation, has hired GIM to make a simplified version of the software for its language as well. 

Though Hermes says she initially encountered some resistance among elders within the tribe, those attitudes changed once they realized how few speakers remained. The project then gained a new level of importance. “They said, ‘Do anything you can,’” Hermes recalls. However, some oral traditions, such as sacred stories and ceremonies, are not recorded.

She also acknowledged that there might be some criticism from young activists for making the language available to non-Native Americans. However, Hermes views the wide availability to learn Ojibwemowin as something positive. “Now they have access where there wasn’t any before,” she says, adding that there’s always a role for outsiders.

Hermes used the software to teach 60 students in the sixth and eighth grades at the Hayward Public Schools in Minnesota. Students using the software have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm, Hermes says, especially because the learning material includes games, which students play competitively in two teams. That motivates them even more, she says. Students even ask permission to go on to the next level while practicing with the Byki flash cards. “A kid would never ask to read the next chapter in a textbook,” Hermes says. “I thought this was indicative of a very good motivational reward effect.”

Hermes also collected some achievement test scores and data on student progress. Previously, the students didn’t have text or tools, and there were few ways to measure progress, so “we saw 100 percent improvement, needless to say,” Hermes says.

She hopes to garner even more interest using the games. “It could be a cultural intervention, a social sphere where people could start using it for fun,” she says. “People could come together on a Wednesday night and play the games.”

So far, Hermes says GIM has been successful in selling the software to schools, such as the Milwaukee public school system, and has plans to also sell it to several area colleges and universities that will use Ojibwemodaa in lieu of a traditional textbook. The organization has had more than $15,000 in sales since November, and donated another 200 copies of the software. Overall, Hermes says 400 copies are now in circulation.

Hermes and Roach are also seeking funding to conduct studies on how the software is being implemented. Currently, a free demo is available on the GIM Web site, www.Ojibwemovies.com.

“We say, ‘Eat local,’” Hermes says. “I’d like to think that in the future we’ll come to say, ‘Speak local.’”

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues