iPhone app teaches Lakota language, culture

A new iPhone application combines centuries-old Native American culture and cutting-edge smartphone technology to teach youngsters the Lakota language.

The Lakota Toddler app, now available for free in the iTunes store, is the second app by software developers Isreal Shortman and Rusty Calder. The two developers worked with Arlo Iron Cloud, the morning radio announcer for KILI Radio in Porcupine, to create an app that teaches Lakota vocabulary through text, pictures and sounds. Shortman, a member of the Navajo tribe, created his first app for the Navajo language when he realized his 11-year-old daughter did not know basic Navajo history. He thought teaching her the language would help her remember the culture as well. Shortman now plans to develop two more Native language apps and expand to other Native American languages people request.

“We're trying to make learning the language fun,” he said.

Shortman began working on the Lakota app when his friend Iron Cloud approached him. Iron Cloud said he had wanted to create a language app for about three years, but kept hitting brick walls with language programs.

“People are always saying we live in a Third World country and we don't have a lot here, but somehow a lot of us manage to have iPhones,” he said. “This is one area that has never been tapped into as far as language revitalization goes.”

Iron Cloud used his audio mixing and recording ability to record a local woman, Dollie Red Elk, speaking Lakota words for the app.

Right now, the app contains vocabulary cards for 33 food, body and number words. The cards show a photo of the object or number, the Lakota word spelling and the English word spelling. When a user presses the object, a voice speaks the Lakota word. There is also a matching game where users match written Lakota words to objects.

Shortman plans to add more games and vocabulary and expand the app to other platforms such as Android, Xbox and Wii soon. He estimates he and Calder donated about $30,000 worth of time to produce each app.

Native American languages are dying with elderly speakers, according to a report the Census Bureau published in December. Nearly a quarter of people ages 65 and older speak Native American languages and only one in 10 people younger than 18 speak them. There are 372,000 Native American language speakers in the U.S., according to the report.

Apps and other products that use new technology are one way to reach younger Lakota speakers and keep the language alive, Iron Cloud said.

“It's a tool we can use to restore Lakota language and culture,” he said. “I don't honestly think that it's in a position that it needs to be saved. It just needs to be restored in the home, school setting, everywhere else.”

By Ruth Moon
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) March 2012