Language revitalization advocates say they applaud the new technology, but note it’s just one part of broader efforts that could include mentorship, classes and a community commitment to using tribal languages in daily life.
“It can be a very powerful tool in helping revive or revitalize endangered languages,” said Inee Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute based in Santa Fe, N.M. “What we caution is that these are purely tools, and they do not substitute for a person’s willpower and discipline to study and learn the language.”
Slaughter, whose organization holds seminars on tribal language education and researches best practices for teachers, said she’s witnessed a wave of interest in language renewal over the past two decades.
“It’s gaining momentum very, very quickly,” Slaughter said of the movement. “It’s growing, and it’s very encouraging.”
Experts point to the early- to mid-1970s as the effort’s start, and say it got a boost when the Native American Languages Act, passed in 1990, declared the U.S. was committed to ensuring the languages’ survival. Federal funding for revitalization projects was added in 1992, allowing tribes to apply for competitive grants.
Money can help speed up the efforts, allowing tribes to hire language teachers or pay for apps. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California uses funds from its casino to pay for Luiseno language courses at nearby California State University, San Bernardino.
The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, with its robust Ho-Chunk Renaissance program, also runs an award-winning economic development program and owns the WinnaVegas casino in Sloan, Iowa.
“There are definitely things you can do if you have more money,” Hinton said. “But I also see tribes with plenty of money that don’t do anything about language.”
The most important ingredient, experts say, is willpower, and a love for the language.