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Bringing a language back to life

A new dictionary app, four years in the making, aims to spark a Crow comeback
Posted at 12:18 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-23 14:18:08-05

With fewer and fewer fluent speakers of the Crow language, advocates for revitalizing it hope a free online dictionary can aid people already working to bolster their skills and make learning the language more accessible.

On Thursday, a group of linguists, native Crow speakers and programmers launched the app after four years of work on the project. The dictionary contains more than 10,000 entries and audio of Crow language speakers demonstrating pronunciation. It is free to download on Android and IOS devices. The group that spearheaded the project — a coalition of the nonprofit Language Conservancy, the Crow Nation, Little Big Horn College and the Crow Language Consortium — celebrated the app’s launch during a virtual event that included a demonstration and remarks from participants in the project.

The hope, said Crow Language Consortium Board Chair and Project Director Janine Pease, is that the dictionary app will be useful for people currently trying to learn the language, inspire learners who don’t have access to a fluent teacher, and meet younger generations where they already spend a lot of their time.

“Technology is really accessible to our youngsters,” she said. “What really is important, is it can step into the grand scheme of media and technology but have the quality that delivers the language.”

In the past, Pease said, she was hesitant about using technology to teach the language, preferring one-on-one methods to “rekindle the way language was learned for generations upon generations.”

“Because of where we are in history and time, we need to take advantage of each and every tool we have,” she told the Montana Free Press.

There are other dictionaries of the Crow language, also known as Apsaalooke, but in many cases they aren’t as accessible as the online app, either out of print and hard to find or too expensive for many language learners. The new app’s launch comes as Crow fluency rates have dropped from 85% in the 1960s to 20% today. Fluent Crow speakers currently number about 4,200, while some tribes have only a handful of fluent speakers remaining, Pease said.

Worldwide, about 90% of the approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken are expected to become extinct in the next 100 years, according to the Language Conservancy. In the last 400 years, more than 200 Indigenous languages in the United States have gone extinct, according to the nonprofit, which works to help endangered languages endure.

For years, U.S. government policies discouraged Indigenous people from speaking their native languages and sometimes forced attendance at boarding schools where speaking an Indigenous language was forbidden, said Language Conservancy President Wil Meya. The movement to revitalize Indigenous languages is often driven by younger generations eager to connect with their culture in a way their grandparents and great-grandparents did.

“Language is the vehicle of culture,” Meya said. “The impacts of colonial policies over the last 200 years … have resulted in the situation we’re in today.”

Tribes in Montana have all taken steps to ensure their languages are preserved and fluency rates increase, Pease said. Some have pursued revitalization through language classes in tribal colleges, schools and immersion programs over the course of decades. Others have started to address the problem of language loss more recently.

Retaining the tribe’s language is important, Pease said, because so much of Crow culture, history, tradition and identity is tied to the language, and much of that culture and history can’t simply be translated into English.

“It isn’t simply a means of communication, it’s a worldview,” she said. “It is how we are connected to one another, it’s our kinship.”

Despite the relatively high number of fluent Crow speakers and a years-long focus that’s positioned the tribe to ensure that new generations have opportunities to learn the language, Crow language revitalization efforts are at a critical juncture because of a generational gap, Pease said. While many younger people are learning the language in school, the practice doesn’t often extend to home because many parents don’t speak it.

That’s where the new dictionary app can play a role, Pease said, adding that she hopes it contributes to more parents speaking Crow in the home. She also said she hopes to develop and distribute at-home lessons and games for families to do together, using the app to check for accuracy. It should also help standardize spelling conventions and definitions as work to increase the number of Crow speakers continues.

“The Crow people have been waiting for an app like this for years,” Pease said. “We are so pleased that this finally happened.”