Chitimacha: Building Blocks for Revitalization

Revitalizing a language that hasn’t been spoken in 70 years is no easy task. Yet, just this past month I spent seven days working with the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana who are hard at work doing just that. The Chitimacha recently finished working with our Endangered Language Program to create Rosetta Stone software in their language, to be used throughout their schools and community. Now that the product is complete, we turn our gaze to the next steps: bringing the language into the community and creating the next building blocks for revitalization.

chitimacha studentThe members of the Chitimacha language team, including their Cultural Director, Kim Walden, invited me to Louisiana to host a workshop on these goals. The Rosetta Stone software is a pivotal and fantastic first step, and now we’ve set our sights on the big prize: fluent speakers. So the team and I holed ourselves up in the conference room at the Cultural Department building for the week and got to work, focusing on immersion teaching methods, curriculum planning, community revitalization goals, and ways of integrating Rosetta Stone into the classroom. One important next step is to create supplementary classroom materials such as workbooks and teachers’ guides that complement the software, with our Endangered Language Program assisting in implementation and development.

We also did a great deal of strategic planning and vision setting, and the team came up with some outstanding ideas. Here are just a few:

  • As an assignment, ask 8th graders in the tribal school to create storybooks in Chitimacha. Since this would be the students’ last year attending the community school, these storybooks would be a great cultural legacy to leave behind, and a valuable resource for years to come.
  • Give prizes to anyone who completes one or more units of the Rosetta Stone product. What a great way to incentivize language learning!
  • Continue to include Chitimacha prayers at every community event. In the past, prayers were read by one of the local language teachers, but now the language team would like to include children reading prayers, and expand the language into other areas as well.
  • At an upcoming feast in November, they’ll create labels in Chitimacha for each dish. The best part is, there won’t be any translation—all will be only in Chitimacha. This is a great way to incorporate the language into community events, without overwhelming the attendees.
  • Update the current dictionary, which was created several years ago, with terms used in the Rosetta Stone software; entries should also better reflect the early documentation we have on the language. Beginning with old, hand-typed, scrawled-on notes from the 1940s, the team has begun turning the collective legacy materials into a neat, easily searchable dictionary!

Overall, my recent week in Louisiana was an exciting first step to the next phase of Chitimacha language revitalization. Rosetta Stone should prove to be an excellent building block for genuine fluency in the next generation of Chitimacha speakers.

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Danny Hieber

Danny is a linguist who works with speakers of endangered languages to document and revitalize their language, studies cross-linguistic patterns in language, and helps design prototypes of new products with Rosetta Stone Labs. After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a BA in linguistics and philosophy, Danny joined the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program in 2008 and has since adapted Rosetta Stone for the Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq languages. In his spare time, he does karate, plays piano, and researches cool things about language.
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