Saving Vanishing Languages

05/01/2022
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    The average American spends four hours and 23 minutes on a cellphone daily—not including talking! Maybe phones can be tools to preserve disappearing languages like Cherokee.
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    Benjamin Frey is a professor and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He led the language research behind a new smartphone interface by Motorola which uses Cherokee characters. (AP/Gerry Broome)
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    This image shows an example of personalization options in the Moto App in Cherokee. Users can personalize fonts, layouts, and more. (Motorola Globalization team via AP)
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    This image shows an example of a Moto App launch screen in Cherokee featuring navigation tips for the user. (Motorola Globalization team via AP)
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    In 1821, Sequoyah created the Cherokee syllabary, or set of symbols that represent syllables in a language.
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Head down, fingers flying. People seem nearly constantly glued to their mobile devices. Could the ever-present cell phone help preserve vanishing languages?

Telecommunications company Motorola is investing in language research. Recently, the company introduced a Cherokee language tool on its newest line of phones.

Users will be able to find apps and toggle settings using the syllable-based written language.

Merely reading Cherokee on smartphones won’t preserve the language. But it might begin immersing younger tribal citizens in the tongue spoken by a dwindling number of their elders.

That’s the hope of Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “It’s just one more piece of a very large puzzle of trying to preserve and proliferate the language,” he says.

Apple, Microsoft, and Google software options already enable people to type in Cherokee on laptops and phones. But language preservationists with the Motorola project tried to infuse the system with Cherokee culture—not just written symbols.

For example, the start button on a Motorola device features a Cherokee word that translates into English as “just start.” That’s a clever nod to the casual way Cherokee elders might use the phrase, says Benjamin Frey, a university professor and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“It could have said ‘let’s get started’ in many different ways,” Frey comments. “But it said halenagwu.” He adds, “That’s very Cherokee. . . . which is pretty exciting.”

Frey and Sneed collaborated with Motorola. Both understand that some Cherokee have concerns about language research by tech companies.

“I think it is a danger that companies could take this kind of material and take advantage of it, selling it without sharing the proceeds with community members,” Frey says. “I decided that the potential benefit was worth the risk.”

Frey didn’t grow up speaking Cherokee. His grandmother and others of her generation were told that “English was the only way to get ahead in the world.” They were punished for speaking Cherokee, Frey says. Therefore, Frey’s mom didn’t learn the language—and didn’t teach him.

Sneed says that of thousands of members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who speak Cherokee fluently as their first language, “I think we’re down to 172 or so.”

Frey hopes Motorola’s new tool will start conversations between older Cherokee language speakers and their tech-savvy grandkids. But it’ll take real-life language interactions, not just smartphone technology, to make a difference.

“We do have to make sure that the language continues to be used and continues to be spoken,” says Frey. “Otherwise, it could die out.”

Why? The God who calls Himself “the Word” (John 1:1) places great importance on language. Perhaps God wants someone reading this magazine to spread the gospel by working with little-known languages.

Pray about how God might use a gift for languages to further His work in the world.