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Lockee method perpetuates Native-American language

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 21 - February 19, 1998

The languages are ancient, but the methods for preserving them may involve the latest in computer technology, according to Barbara Lockee.
Before Columbus arrived in North America, there were 2,000 indigenous languages spoken here, according to Lockee, who did her doctoral dissertation on using hypermedia--computer technology that can present the languages through audio, video, the written word, graphics, and other methods--to perpetuate Native American languages. "Now there are only about 200," she said, "and more than half of those are close to death."
For example, only about 10,000 of the 100,000 people living on the Cherokee Qualla Boundary in North Carolina speak the native language daily. In Oklahoma, the former "Indian Territory," only about 20 percent of the Native American population is fluent in the native language.
"Hope exists, however," Lockee said in her dissertation, "because many tribal officials believe that maintenance of tribal cultures is dependent on their young people's learning to read, write, and speak their native languages." Lockee is a North Carolinian of Cherokee ancestry who recently completed her doctorate here. She is also a distance-learning program developer and assistant professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Tech. She was able to combine her interest in perpetuating Native American languages with her doctoral work by developing a program to help teach Native Americans their original languages.
"I saw the culture being assimilated as people move away from central communities and felt a need to do something about it," Lockee said. "My advisor, Mike Moore, recommended that, when I did a dissertation, I pick a topic I had a personal interest in because of the time invested. I was fortunate that I was passionate about the topic, so it didn't seem like work."
Lockee is concerned because many Native Americans lost their native languages through several influences. In the mid to late 1800s, young American Indians were forced into boarding schools; and, in 1886, the government made it unlawful to use any language except English in schools, or to use books in any Indian languages, Lockee said. Also, when they moved from their reservations, they adapted by speaking the dominant language instead of their own. The result is the loss of hundreds of languages altogether and the danger of losing those remaining.
The loss of a language results in the loss of the native culture. Elders who maintained their primary language also hold the key to a wealth of information about their tribal heritage, Lockee said, but the lack of ability to communicate with those elders may result in "the tragic loss of otherwise unavailable cultural history." The loss of a language also leads to "a decreased academic ability," Lockee said, as the people adopt a combination of both languages that is not a fluent version of either.
President George Bush substantiated the ability to perpetuate native language learning in 1991 when he signed the Native American Languages Act providing funding "for the creation of culturally relevant curricula to facilitate native language learning," Lockee said. And, as even children on reservations attend schools taught in English, it is important that the educational process recognize the cultural conditioning of Native Americans as they try to learn any subject, including their indigenous language, Lockee said. Failure to do so may hinder the students' success.
Non-urban Native Americans have different learning styles from non-Indians, styles picked up their homes, she said. For example, non-urban Native Americans are taught not to perform something publicly until they have observed and mastered it, but to reflect and keep silent until they are certain about their answers. Therefore, when a teacher calls on students, forcing them to answer before they are ready, Native American students are at a disadvantage.
Also, many language courses offer vocabulary words and grammar out of context of actual situations. Since Native American students learn through stories that have relevance to their entire life--the seasons, events, values, tribal history--the grammar-and-vocabulary approach is not effective.
Native American students also learn through "a social process involving input from other sources," and their cultures "tend to emphasize noncompetitive, cooperative living, with a strong sense of community and extended family," Lockee said. Therefore, their learning is primarily through peer learning and modeling what they see in their families, often their elders.
Another difference in learning styles shows up when the students take tests. Native American students learn, in their homes, that there is often more than one possible solution to a problem and that all possible solutions should be considered before making a decision. When they are asked, on standardized, quantitative tests, to choose from a few solutions, they consider the process irresponsible.
With the goals of perpetuating native languages by teaching them in a way Native American students could appreciate, Lockee surprisingly turned to the latest in technological advances. She developed a hypermedia program to teach Cherokee elementary children their native language.
The program, designed to be completed entirely on computer, includes narration about the origin of celestial bodies by native speakers who are seen on the computer screen, so that the students have familiar faces and intonations. It includes pictorial depiction of tribal legends such as the ones elders once used to teach the lessons of life. In that way, the language relates to the students' own culture and their way of holistically learning values, history, and other lessons, as well as the language.
The program provides an opportunity for the students to translate and even write their own stories at their own pace, giving them the time they need to master the material before they perform it. This exercise also suits the students' preference for critical-thinking skills instead of memorization of content, Lockee said. And, the students are allowed to work in pairs, providing them with the cooperative, inter-related type learning that suits their cultural styles.
In her position in teaching and learning, Lockee will include Native American language preservation through web-based instruction and other asynchronous methods as part of her research. She wants to develop further the cooperative aspect of learning through the program, and she will take the program, which the Cherokee in North Carolina now have, to other tribes. Although the program was written for the Cherokee language and even includes the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoia, different tribes can adapt the program by inserting their own legends and languages into the template.