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Can the digital age save the Cherokee language? The halls of Facebook, Google and texting

coverSusan Gathers was kicked back in the student union one afternoon, her thumbs poised over her smart phone, simultaneously bantering with friends while texting — sometimes even texting the same person she was talking to.

This impressive skill to seamlessly dialogue in multiple mediums at once is nothing new for “Generation Next-ers” like Gathers. But unlike the typical truncated words and vowel-less abbreviations that permeate normal text-speak, her screen was filled with Cherokee syllables as she pushed send.


“What is … wait … oh, I get it. Ha-ha-ha-ha,” Venice Mason laughed from across the table after sorting out the Cherokee message Gathers sent her.

A mobile app that makes texting in the Cherokee language possible has become indispensible for Western Carolina University students majoring in Cherokee studies.

“I want to be fluent,” said Gather, a 23-year-old senior. “This is helping me reach that goal.”

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A small group of students — some Cherokee, some not — have formed a Native American Club on campus. One of their hobbies is practicing Cherokee, something they can now do in the modern digital mediums of their generation, be it texting or even Facebook.

“That is how we are going to speak to each other in the future even more than we know,” said Cara Forbes, a freshman and president of WCU’s Native American Club.

Rapidly firing incomplete sentences on cell phones might not look or feel like the same Cherokee language spoken by fluent elders, but it’s a critical juncture in the race to pass the torch to the next generation of speakers. Putting the language at the fingertips of youth in a format they know means the language is being used in daily life and interactions — which is ultimately the test of a language’s survival.

“Language is something that happens in social interactions between people who hold that language in their minds,” said Hartwell Francis, the director of WCU’s Cherokee language program. “They are not thinking about how they are interacting; they are simply interacting through the language.”

Cherokee language proponents have collaborated with Google to launch a Cherokee language interface and Cherokee language version of GMail. One click of the mouse can switch the language settings to Cherokee for web searches and composing email messages.

The possibilities are vast. Whether it’s Cherokee YouTube videos or skyping with native Cherokee speakers, getting the language into new popular mediums could make the difference in the language surviving or dying down the road.

The digital age of the Internet has its pitfalls, however.

“What does having this information available on the Internet mean to Cherokee speakers, Cherokee language learners and the Cherokee community?” Francis posed during a talk last month at WCU on Cherokee language in the digital age.

But like any subject you search on the web, some is pure junk. Francis has spent untold hours sifting through Cherokee language websites, and sadly, most are little more than clearinghouses with the Cherokee equivalent of English words — often the same lists borrowed and replicated.

“You have essentially useless, overproduced word lists that are potentially incorrect, often a list of colors or an alphabet,” Francis said.

Francis fears the plethora of these sites could give language proponents a false sense of security.

“You can see how limited it is,” Francis said, pulling up one such site, where you type in the English word and it spits out the Cherokee syllabic pronunciation for its equivalent. “Language is words being put together in a meaningful context. It puts a severe bottleneck in your language learning if you have to type in word by word.”

Still, part of Cherokee language revitalization is simply to capture words before they are lost. A beginner can piece together the Cherokee words for “my tooth hurts,” but the actual word for a toothache? That’s something only native speakers, who grew up in a language-rich environment with fluent parents speaking Cherokee daily, might actually know.

Despite its downsides, the Internet may be a last line of defense for those struggling to keep the Cherokee language alive after generations of suppression. The Cherokee language is hanging on by a thread today, with a dwindling number of fluent speakers in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, most of them older.

“If you are trying to eliminate a culture — a culture being the way that a group of people commonly think about things and interpret things amongst themselves so they can function as a group — the best way to eliminate that culture is to circumvent their way of interpreting the world,” said Tom Belt, a native Cherokee speaker and Cherokee language professor at WCU.

In other words, take away their language. The United States government tried to eradicate American Indian languages a century ago. Children were forced into boarding schools where they were harshly punished for speaking their own language. Native languages were labeled vulgar, dirty, crude — so Cherokee people stopped speaking their own language publicly, and stopped passing it on.

“The way people accessed a language was in their own homes and nowhere else. Among family members they may speak it in the yard or down the road from their house but nowhere else,” Belt said. “Access to that language simply becomes more and more limited.”

The internet and digital age could help change that.

“The more we make this available, the more people can access it again,” Belt said. “Whatever way we can make it accessible for people to learn, not only are we revitalizing the historical property of a language, but we are invigorating a culture.”

If kids can text in Cherokee, that means the language isn’t solely surviving in a textbook but is actually being used in real human interactions — even if the medium is a screen.

“It becomes the way people think again. It becomes the way things are brought up, the way a group of people function,” Belt said.

Digital language apps and tools catering to today’s tech-savvy generation have come a long way, but much of the potential is still untapped. Francis would like to see a mobile game in Cherokee.

“Some kind of intrinsically interesting adventure game or a button mashing game — that will be one of the ways people learn the language,” Francis said.

A recent project involved kids doing a Cherokee language version of the movie “Night at the Museum.”

“They took something they loved and re-enacted it in their own language. It raises the prestige of the language, and it also gives you those language interaction examples you might be missing,” Francis said.

Cherokee language proponents have begun recording native speakers reading stories, and then paired the MP3 audio files with PDF’s of the written Cherokee syllabary.

One hurdle, however, is that today’s native speakers — the keepers of the language so to speak — are mostly elderly. They don’t know how to use computers.

Some of the students in the Cherokee cultural club at WCU have stepped in to bridge that divide, helping create translated versions of children’s books in Cherokee using computer software. Native speakers write out the Cherokee translation for children’s books by hand, and the students use their computer skills to overlay the Cherokee words with the pictures from the book to make a new Cherokee language version.

The books in turn are augmenting the library of the New Kituwah Language Academy, a Cherokee language immersion school for children from birth through fifth grade on the Cherokee reservation. The elite school where only Cherokee is spoken is ground zero in the effort to raise the next generation of fluent speakers. But the lack of books in the Cherokee language is a challenge for the teachers.

The biggest hurdle, however, lies ahead. Will the students keep using the language once they hit middle school and leave the cocoon of the immersion language classroom?

“The problem is maintaining that when they graduate from the fifth grade. That’s where this new media comes in. They are going to need the new and fresh ways of interacting,” Francis said.

Facebooking, Googling and texting in Cherokee could be key.

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