I heard this story on Minnesota Public Radio while driving home tonight. Douglas Adams and Gene Roddenberry are smiling down on this from somewhere—probably a booth in a restaurant at the end of the universe.

A handheld that saves native languages?

The Prairie Island Indian Community is using a US Defense
Department tool to try to revive its Dakota language. The Phraselator
is used by U.S. troops in the Middle East if they don’t have an
interpreter. To use it, you say a phrase into the handheld device and
it translates, out loud.

The Phraselator was originally developed for the US military by a firm called VoxTec. The product tagline is "Speak a new language. Instantly." That may be overreaching a bit.

MPR’s story raises the questions you might expect: Is it a tool? A linguistic crutch? Does it detour users away from a natural, contextual immersion in language? Is it a way to save endangered languages? No earth-shattering conclusions are drawn; but the parting quote from Wayne Wells, the Dakota language teacher featured in the story, is hopeful:

"I was discouraged for a little while, because it was like, they’re
never gonna get this," he says during a break from recording. "But
then, all of a sudden, they started speaking. Another milestone is, the
intermediate kids that have been coming for a couple years? They’re
teaching the beginning class now."

If kids are beginning to teach other kids, this surprising technology integration initiative might be going in the right direction.

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