- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

WHITE SHIELD, N.D. (AP) - A language is a reflection of who its speakers are as people, conveying as it does their customs, beliefs and daily habits for a particular time and place.

More than 6,000 languages are still currently spoken around the world, but the majority of these have a small, often shrinking community of speakers. Based on current trends, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warns that around half of the world’s languages may disappear by the end of this century.

While many of these threatened language communities might usually be found in exotic locales like the Amazon rainforest or Indonesian archipelago, three are much closer to home here in North Dakota, belonging to the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold Reservation. Along with Hidatsa and Mandan, the Arikara language is listed by UNESCO as being a critically endangered language. Centered around White Shield, among the Arikara community there are only a handful of people still able to speak the language, and none with complete fluency.

“They say an indigenous language dies every two weeks,” said Brad Kroupa, an anthropologist on staff at the Arikara Cultural Center that opened last October in White Shield. “For our language to survive in the 21st Century, what we need to do is adapt with the times.”

Part of that adaptation is by making use of modern technology to better engage the community’s youth with the language. The latest means of doing so is with the release of an Arikara language-learning application for use on Apple products like the iPad and iPhone.

“It’s pretty neat,” Kroupa told the Minot Daily News (http://bit.ly/1qEbiX3). “You can walk by kids and you think they’re playing games on their phones, and they walk by and you hear some Arikara words.”

In addition to making available phrases and vocabulary, the app also contains some cultural and historical information about Arikara culture.

Together with Thornton Media Inc., Whirlwind Bull Perkins, Kroupa, and the cultural center’s director, Dancing Eagle Perkins, developed the application, which can presently be downloaded for free through iTunes or online at (itunes.apple.com/us/app/arikara/id704519050?mt=8).

“Hopefully within the next couple of weeks it’s going to be available for Android,” said Kroupa.

The app isn’t the first instance where technology has been used in revitalization efforts, with much of the language preserved by a linguist during the 1980s and 1990s by recording Arikara elders on tape. Even if the language fell completely out of use, this collection could be a valuable starting point for its revival.

“We are lucky enough to have an extensive collection of materials,” Kroupa explained. “The Arikara language is very well documented.”

More recently, the Internet has also been of service. As an instructor of Arikara at Fort Berthold Community College, Kroupa said the college recently made the first-level course available online.

While this allows Arikara students around the country to take a more active interest in learning their language, this means of instruction makes it somewhat more difficult for imparting proper pronunciation. Kroupa has gotten around this by allowing students to arrange for him to send by text messaging audio recordings of himself speaking the vocabulary.

The mobile app is just a part of the broader effort to revitalize the Arikara language by members of the tribe.

“We’re all trying,” said Delilah Yellow Bird, an Arikara educator at White Shield School. Though she does not consider herself fluent, Yellow Bird learned a great deal from the tribal elders. “I came in as a secretary for the bilingual education program back in the mid-seventies. That’s where I learned, was just going into classrooms with the elders on a daily basis, and through a lot of repetition. It’s a lot of repetition.”

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