Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Flashcards on the iPhone

Everyone loves to play with iPhones and iPads. When you’re stuck in line or riding in a car, it’s great fun to be able to flick through images, play games, read, or watch videos.

Because of this, several communities I visit have shown an interest in making apps for smart phones that would teach endangered languages. Getting an app designed and approved isn’t always easy, though, so lately I’ve been looking for existing apps or app templates that could be used for this purpose.

This last weekend I tried out several flashcard apps for the iPhone. My first choice is managed through a web site called StudyBlue.com. You begin by going to their web site on a computer and signing up for a free account. I wanted to develop materials for Koasati, so I created a folder named "Koasati" and began a deck of flashcards named "Koasati 1". For this first deck, I wanted users to learn the names of common animals. I then went to Wikipedia and searched for images of about 16 common animals (dog, cat, bear, etc.). I saved these on my computer, and then I used each image as the front side of a flashcard. Then on the back of each card, I typed in the Koasati term for that animal.
For my next deck of flashcards, I decided to work on the numbers from 1 to 10. I opened up PowerPoint and made ten slides with a large number on each one. I then saved those slides as JPEG files and made flashcards by uploading the images.
Anyone who wants to see these decks can do so by installing the app StudyBlue on their iPhone, iPad, or Android phone. Then they need to sign up for StudyBlue and search for "Koasati". The flashcard decks can then be downloaded and studied.

Other options are available for using the same deck from the StudyBlue.com site on a computer. One useful feature is the Quiz function, which takes the information from a deck of flashcards and turns it into a multiple choice, fill in the blank, or true/false quiz.

The StudyBlue site is not without problems, though. It’s supposed to be possible to make a deck of cards with an audio recording on the front side. Instead of allowing users to upload recordings, however, the interface is designed to record words through a microphone. Despite several attempts on a Windows PC and on a Mac, I wasn’t able to get the recording function to work.

There are other sites for making flashcards. Quizlet, for example, automatically generates several games you can play based on the content in a deck of cards. Instead of allowing you to upload recordings, though, the web site designers assumed you’d be happy to have pronunciations synthesized in a handful of languages (English, Spanish, etc.). On some screens, certain Unicode characters also appeared as blocks.

A third site I tried--gFlash--creates cards from a Google spreadsheet you share with them. I wasn’t able to get the audio flashcards to work, though: the app plays the audio recording correctly, but then in my case either crashed or failed to show the back of the card.

It seems likely that we’ll see these applications develop over the next year or so. My wish list would include the ability to upload recordings for the front and/or back of a card, to generate a number of different games based on the content of a deck, to allow a title card that gives brief instructions, to be able to upload video, and to allow for multi-dimensional flash cards. StudyBlue is currently my favorite, but this is clearly a competitive area with much room for progress.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Managing Conflict (or You say To-ma-to, I say To-mah-to)

People love to fight about language. I don't know how many times I've heard people say things like this:
  • "That's not how MY grandfather said it."
  • "She might say that, but she went to boarding school and so hasn't heard it as much."
  • "He says that, but he's only 70."
  • "If we did it your way, we'd still be using kerosene lamps."
When communities start to document a language, they soon discover differences that they never noticed before: differences in pronunciation, in the particular words used for everyday items, or even in the endings that words take. These differences suddenly become apparent when people start writing a language for the first time. I've seen heated arguments erupt over lessons about what terms for colors to teach!

If these tensions are not dealt with directly and openly, they can quickly spiral out of control. People may refuse to write the language. They may go years without agreeing on the most basic teaching materials. People may divide into different groups. Or one person may decide to take over and force everyone to write and teach the language his or her way.

How can communities anticipate these conflicts and acknowledge differences without letting them divide them? Every community starting a language project should have a workshop at the beginning in which these sorts of conflicts are discussed. Here are the basic points that really have to be covered:

1. People speak differently (they ALWAYS have!). Every speech community has differences between individuals, differences between families, differences between old people and young people, and differences based on where the person grew up. These differences are INTERESTING and should be documented. In a word list, you can acknowledge these differences simply by putting someone's initials after a word.

2. When a language stops changing, it's dead. These sorts of disputes come up all the time in indigenous communities: Should we allow a drum to be played with that dance, even though they never used to do that? Should we give everyone Pendleton blankets, even though they aren't "traditional"? Each community needs to discuss these issues openly.

3. You don't have to standardize a language to write it down or teach it. People often assume when you start writing a language down and making a dictionary that you're deciding on what the "correct" form of the language is. Whoever is leading the workshop should show people that English speakers say things differently, too, and that there are ways to acknowledge those differences with notes about usage or labels like "OLDER FORM", etc. When someone is teaching a language, it's probably simplest to have the teacher teach it her way. She can point out differences, though, and she can encourage kids to ask their parents how they say it.

A language committee should be a warm, welcoming place where people are encouraged to share their own way of speaking. It is vitally important that whoever is leading the discussion create such a space by setting a respectful tone, by anticipating disagreements, and by dealing directly with differences as they emerge.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Helping Language "Hearers"

Many endangered language communities have three groups of speakers, often linked to age:
  • those who are fully fluent in the endangered language
  • those who understand the language, but have difficulty expressing themselves
  • those who can't say anything
Much of our attention has been focused on children, since they seem to pick up language naturally. The middle generation is commonly left out, even though they're often the ones who are actively involved in raising kids.

I've heard linguists use several terms for those who understand a language but don't speak it, including "passive bilingual" and "semi-speaker." In the community I'm visiting now, people say they "hear" (i.e., understand) the language, but don't speak it.

For several weeks now we've had a support group for these language "hearers." We meet once a week to have lunch together, and we usually plan a fun activity involving language:
  • Day 1. Each person gets a slip of paper with the name of a community member or celebrity on it. Then everyone asks questions to try to guess who that person is.
  • Day 2. The group divides into pairs. Each pair gets a slip of paper describing a situation. Each pair then has to act out that situation in the form of a skit. Situations: a) one person is a hairstylist, the other is the customer; b) one person is sick in the hospital, the other is visiting; c) one person is calling the other person on the phone wondering if they're going to the store and whether they can get something for them.
  • Day 3. We decide to start a phrase book to help others in the community. We divide into two groups, and each group chooses a specific topic (Greetings, Getting to Know Someone, Eating Together, Cooking Together, Driving, Shopping, On the Phone, When Someone is Sick, At Church, etc.). Each group then writes down 10-20 sentences on that topic, practices them, and then reads them to the other group.
  • Day 4. The group plays $10,000 Pyramid. We each write the names of five objects or people on slips of paper and put them in a hat. We divide into two groups. One person from the first group draws a piece of paper and has to get the others on the same team to guess that word. The team that gets through the most slips of paper in a given time period (say, three minutes) wins.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Printing Books Online with Lulu.com

You hardly ever find a company that's eager to publish a children's book in an endangered language. That's where on-demand self-publishing comes in: instead of submitting a manuscript to a publisher and waiting for it to be reviewed, you just send files to an online printer. The printer then provides a link, and you advertise the link to people who want to order the book.

I've been in Elton, Louisiana for the last two weeks. In that short time, my Coushatta friends and I have made not one, but THREE books for kids in the Koasati language that way:

First Words in Koasati, by Barbara Langley. Barbara made a baby's quilt with images of a star, a house, a ball, etc. We turned this into a book by photographing each block on the quilt.

A-faa-hil-kas Gracie, by Nina Poncho Fuselier. Nina made this book with her daughter in a language workshop. She photographed a stuffed animal in various locations and then added Koasati and English to make a story.

Ko-was-saa-ti Nas-ma-thaa-li A-saa-la / Coushatta Animal Baskets. The Coushatta make baskets out of pine needles, sometimes in the shape of animals. We photographed twenty of those, added the Koasati and English beneath, and turned it into a book.

All three of these books are "photo books", with better printing for color images. The first two are "mini books" (about 3.5" x 5.5"). The third is 7" x 9".

Formatting these books was pretty easy using Lulu.com. You choose the type of paper you want, binding options, the size of the book, etc. Then you upload the content (text, photos) and choose a format. When you order a book through them, it takes a few days for them to produce it, and then a few days more to get to your mailbox.

The REALLY great thing about on-demand publishing, though, is that you can correct typos as you discover them. That means you can get a draft version out to a language committee, incorporate their feedback, send another draft out to community members, and revise it again when you've heard back from them.

Because of the high cost of postage, it would be hard to make a profit making books this way. But on-demand self-publishing seems like a great way to create small quantities of nice looking books. And it's really pretty easy.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Planning Lessons in Two Easy Steps

People remember words better when there's a context or story of some kind connecting them. One simple way to ensure that is to design lessons around themes or units like the home, the family, my body, etc. Here's how to plan a year's worth of language lessons in two easy steps:

  • Decide what themes you'd like to teach for the year and the order you'd like to teach them in. Here are some examples: Greetings, The Classroom, The Home, The Camp, My Body, My Family, The Garden, Tame Animals, Birds, Fish, Cooking, Basket Making, Sewing, Wild Animals, Counting.
  • Decide what words and phrases you'd like to introduce with each theme. In planning the phrases, it might help to think about the basic language functions you'd like to teach (commands, introducing yourself, introducing someone else, identifying people and things, asking questions, etc.). A linguist with special knowledge of your language can be a big help here and will usually be happy to help for free.
Once you've decided the themes, the vocabulary, and the phrase patterns, the next step is to consider what methods you'll use to teach that information. It could be a PowerPoint, flashcards, skits, books, a video, a webpage, walks through the woods, or all of the above! Here are some lessons in Southern Tutchone that use a method like this.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Drawing with Bamboo Fun

I'm always looking for easy ways to make digital artwork and paintings. People always seems to need artwork for flashcards, games, picture dictionaries, and classroom posters, but using clip-art is not always appropriate.

My mother was a painter, and recently that's made me want to try to teach myself how to do digital illustrations. I called Mike Blum in our IT department, who recommended a painting tablet from Wacom called Bamboo Fun.

Bamboo Fun really is fun. For $99, you get the drawing tablet, a cordless, pressure-sensitive "pen", and a CD with Corel Paint and Photoshop Elements. It all seems pretty easy to use, and I really enjoy trying to reproduce the look of watercolor or pastels.It helps, of course, if you have something to draw from, even if it's just a photo. Corel Paint also has a feature where you can import a photo and trace around it, which is great for making coloring books.
I've obviously got a lot to learn still about painting, but having the right tools is a big help. Maybe if I keep practicing, my next drawing of a duck won't look so sick!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Two Games: Choskani Foskani and King Frog

For the last three weeks I've been in Louisiana doing my best to help with a Koasati language workshop. Our goal was to produce language teaching materials for little kids and for sixth graders. Each day we started the workshop with a game that could be used to teach a language. Here are two of the games that we enjoyed playing.

Choskani Foskani

Choskani Foskani is like the game "Telephone", except that it's a competition between two teams.

One person is the teacher. The others are students and form two lines. The teacher writes down something the students have been learning (a word, a sentence, etc.) on two pieces of paper. The teacher shows the message to the two people at the front of the lines. Each person in each line then whispers the message to the person behind them. When both lines are done, the last person in each line reports what they heard. A team getting the right answer gets one point.

We called this game Choskani Foskani, because we started with the Koasati sentence "Chinchoskanik hoopahchi?" (Is your duck sick?), which is what one person said when he saw my duck t-shirt. By the time it had gotten to the end of the line, it had become Choskani Foskani, a name we'll never forget.

King Frog (aka Thumper)

Stephanie Hasselbacher taught us this game.

Everyone stands in a circle. One person starts by acting out a word or short phrase and saying it. Examples might be thatho ‘fish’, biitlil ‘I’m dancing’, or chakaay ‘I’m full’. The next person to the right repeats that action and adds another. Then the third person repeats the first two actions and adds a third, etc.