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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Making Electronic Flashcards

Flashcards are a great way for students to memorize vocabulary. In the old days, we'd make flashcards by cutting up slips of paper and writing the English word on one side and the target translation on the other side. These days it's easy to do the same thing online.

CueFlash is one site that makes it fun and easy to make flashcards. You can search for an existing deck of flashcards, like this one for Coushatta tame animals. Or you can make your own flashcards by signing up for a free account. CueFlash allows special characters, but it isn't easy to enter them. The simplest way is probably to find the character you need on a website somewhere, and then to paste that into CueFlash.

CueFlash is designed for use on the web. If you're willing to download a program, you can make more sophisticated flashcards. One of the best free programs is Anki, which allows you to use images or sounds instead of words as the cues. The instructor could prepare decks of cards, and students would have to download the Anki program and the prepared decks.CueFlash and Anki both use programs that repeat flashcards based on how well you know them. The Anki system is more advanced, but CueFlash is more convenient.

Learning a language requires a great deal of memorization. Flashcards are an old-fashioned memory system that, with a few updates, still serves a useful purpose.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Designing a T-shirt

One way to boost pride in a language is to make the language visible with t-shirts, books, bumper stickers, and signs. These days designing a custom t-shirt online is really easy. I decided to make the shirt below.The first step was to make the drawing. I used a free online drawing program called artpad to make my masterpiece. I then took a screenshot of the image (pressing CTRL+PrtSc in Vista), and pasted that in a free image editor called IrfanView. That made it possible to crop and save the image on my desktop. Then I opened up a browser and went to Zazzle, a company that does custom printing. I selected the type of shirt, uploaded my image, and added the Coushatta label "chos-ka-ni". The resulting t-shirt cost $15.95 + $4.50 for shipping. And it's one of a kind!

I can't wait to tell people I'm Duck Clan!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Making a Cartoon Strip with Stripgenerator


Stripgenerator.com is a site that makes it easy even for people who can't draw to make cartoon strips. You can choose between various beings or animals, add objects, and then add balloons with text in your favorite language.

Creating a cartoon strip would be a fun class activity for kids, and the best cartoons could be published in a school paper or newsletter.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Using PowerPoint to Make a Language Lesson

Last week I reviewed Mango Languages and suggested that the basic format of their lesson could be recreated in PowerPoint and exported to Flash using free software like authorPOINT Lite. I sheepishly admitted that I had never used PowerPoint before, but I promised to give it a try. So here's a lesson in Koasati, designed to teach a short conversation involving greetings. Press the big play button, and then press the >> key to advance each slide.

This lesson would have been better with a bilingual person as the narrator. I used clip art for the image of "Jae", but using an image of someone in the community would have been more fun. I'd like to test it, too: This dialogue might be too much for someone to learn at once. Still, it does seem possible to make lessons like this using inexpensive materials.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Learning from Mango Languages

Last week I went to the local library to see what language learning materials they had. I like to go periodically to brush up on a language and to see what methods are being used to teach languages via CD's, cassette tapes, CD-ROM's, books, and videos. This time I was surprised to see that the local library subscribed to a web-based service called Mango Languages. (Even if your library doesn't subscribe, you can try out the first lesson in nine languages for free.)

The method used in these lessons is similar to Pimsleur and several other products you'll recognize if you've ever tried to learn a language from a cassette. I would call it programmed learning: small bits of vocabulary and patterns are fed to the student, who is quizzed with enough repetition so that the pattern sticks.

I always secretly liked this type of learning: I could learn at my own pace, skip forward if I wanted, and choose not to learn some expressions I knew I'd never use. Plus, for someone who finds it hard to start conversations, having a store of dialogues memorized makes it surprisingly easy to be sociable in a second language. And my impression is that these older cassette programs were more effective than programs like Rosetta Stone, which are strong on graphics and weak on pedagogy (see one librarian's amusing comparison here.)

Another aspect of Mango Languages that interests me is that it's essentially a slide-show broadcast on the web using Flash. Millions of people already know how to make multimedia PowerPoint slide-shows like this, and there are free programs like authorPOINT Lite that can convert those to Flash. So in principle, there's nothing stopping those working on endangered languages from making similar products in their spare time.

I have a confession, though: I've never used PowerPoint! This week I'll try to remedy that, and I'll post whatever I come up with!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Using the Gouin Series Method

Jonathan Arries, a colleague in Modern Languages, came to speak to my students and me recently about second language teaching methods that might be effective with children. We had a long discussion about methods for teaching different aged kids, and when to introduce a second alphabet.

One method he recommended for little kids was a Gouin Series. Fran├žois Gouin was a French Latin teacher who wrote about his difficulties in learning German based on grammars and dictionaries. The approach he advocated was to have "themes" such as The Plant and to have students memorize sentences in sequence relating to the theme:
    The acorn sprouts.
    The oak plant takes root.
    The shoot sprouts out of the earth.
    The stalk buds.
    etc.
The key points are that it's more important to learn sentences to speak than words, that verbs are the key elements in sentences, and that sentences are more easily learned when they form a narrative. Gouin succeeded in learning German when he banished the grammar and dictionary in favor of what we would now call discovery learning: he asked his consultants (German-speaking children) to teach him the series associated with different themes (The Plant, The Bird, etc.), and he dutifully wrote these down and memorized them.

Gouin's frustration with traditional grammars and dictionaries is similar to the frustration found in endangered language communities when they see the work that linguists have done. Linguists who document a language usually produce a reference grammar (a description of how sentences and words are formed), a dictionary (a list of all the words), and a text collection (stories, conversations, and other samples of language). These are of little use for people who want to learn how to ask their grandmother to tell a story or to lead a ceremony.

Gouin's method is attractive for its emphasis on actions. Verbs are particularly important in the native languages of the south: verbs are often the only words used in sentences, and the verb encodes everything from the person and number of the participants in a sentence, to tense, location, and direction.

The Gouin Series Method could also be useful in connecting themes kids are learning elsewhere in school with a language class. If kids are learning about frogs and amphibians in science, they could learn related series in their language class (The eggs hatch. / The tadpole swims. / The tadpole forms legs. / The tadpole becomes a frog.) Themes can be based on time (In the morning, In the spring, etc.), and some will lead to actions that kids can act out in a group, possibly in first person:
    When it's time for PE,
    I run outside
    I play ball with my friends
    I slide down the slide
    etc.
Gouin's approach by itself might get boring quickly, but it's one useful method a teacher might use. Gouin's book was translated into English in 1892 and is available here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Playing with Puppets

Puppets are a great way to hold kids' interest. They can be used in a classroom and in videos, and kids can use them to act out skits that they write. Yesterday I found a tortoise puppet and a turkey puppet made by a company called Folkmanis that I liked, and then I found other puppets from the same company on Amazon. I've pasted some photos below of puppets that seem especially appropriate for acting out stories in the native languages of the south. If you click on the image, you can go directly to the Amazon.com listing.

I haven't seen all of these puppets, so I don't know if they're all the same size. The store I went to had the turkey and the tortoise, which are both fairly large (about the size of a basketball). The tortoise is especially expressive and can act shy, nod its head, talk, etc. The turkey just nods and flaps a little.

I think it would be a lot of fun to make a children's video featuring puppets in one segment. It would be easy to make a corresponding coloring book.








Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making Cartoons and Games with Scratch

I like asking teachers, musicians, and others what their favorite software is for graphics, recording, etc. Last night I asked my friend Charlie Morse what software he uses to teach elementary school students about computers and art. He recommended a free program from MIT for Windows or Mac OS X called Scratch. Here's MIT's description of the product:
Scratch is a new programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art -- and share your creations on the web.
Scratch is designed for kids, though: kids learn to program by fitting various commands together like a jigsaw puzzle and then seeing the effect of those commands in a cartoon. Here's a test I did last night using a dialogue in Coushatta by Jeanette Langley and Janice Sylestine (click on the image):

Scratch Project

Scratch has many applications for language teaching. Students and teachers could build an image of a classroom, for example, and then attach recordings to different objects in the classroom. Or they could construct a cartoon that could be embedded in a website and shown to others. Kids can even record themselves saying words if their computer has a microphone.

Because Scratch can be programmed, it's possible for kids to create interactive games and quizzes. My second test was designed to teach animals and then test them (a little like Rosetta Stone):

Scratch Project

Scratch is designed for kids aged 8 and up. I would want to spend a lot of time playing with the program before I tried teaching it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Editing Sounds with Audacity


Linguists and language teachers frequently need to edit or modify sound recordings: they may want to cut just one word out of a long recording, reduce background noise, normalize the volume of several recordings, cut parts of a recording out, or change the format of a recording to mp3 or another format.

Audacity is a free, open-source sound editor that is fairly easy to use and performs all the above functions admirably. Audacity is available for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems. There are many websites describing how to use Audacity, including this one.

Designing a Curriculum 1: Overview

A curriculum is an entire sequence of studies in a particular field (such as a language). A curriculum is often closely associated with standards and sets targets in different areas (listening, speaking, writing) at different levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced or Kindergarten, first grade, etc.). It's important to have a curriculum so that students make progress and don't keep studying names for animals and colors at every grade level.

You can learn a lot about developing a curriculum by searching for "ESL curriculum" or "French curriculum" on the internet. I was intrigued by this ESL curriculum (careful--it's a large PDF!) from the State of Tennessee Department of Education. For Language Arts, their curriculum specifies standards for Listening (L), Speaking (S), Reading (R), and Writing (W) at each grade level. For Kindergarten Learning, for example, they list the following, among many others:

K.L.1 Demonstrate understanding of everyday vocabulary (e.g., common classroom objects and activities).

K.L.2 Use appropriate listening skills (e.g., not interrupting, looking at speaker, interacting when appropriate).


For Speaking, they list the following:

K.S.1 Recite personal data (i.e., first, middle, and last name, age, address, phone number, birthday, mother's name, father's name).

K.S.2 Identify basic colors (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, black, brown, white, gray, pink).


Your community might decide other skills are important, such as Language, History, and Culture.

A curriculum isn't limited to schools. Since it's just a general plan for teaching the language, it's useful for summer camps, after school programs, and clubs. The curriculum helps make sure that each of these programs helps move kids toward fluency.

Would these sorts of objectives be useful for your community? What are all the abilities you would like students to gain in listening, speaking, reading, and writing during their first year? Who should serve on a committee to develop these objectives?

Language is much more than vocabulary: What sentence patterns ("This is a ___," "I am ___ing," etc.) are important for communicating? What communicative objectives do you have ("Be able to introduce someone," "Be able to ask how to say something," "Be able to greet someone," etc.)? Once you have a curriculum planned, what specific lessons will you develop to meet those objectives?

Making Lesson Plans


A lesson plan is just a written plan a teacher makes for a specific lesson. Lesson plans have a fairly standard format so that teachers can exchange lessons and so that others can see where the lesson should fit within the curriculum. The labels below will help you get started: specific schools may have slightly different labels, though.

Grade Level. When you design a lesson plan, it's important to think about the age of the students, what they're capable of doing, and what will interest them.

Duration. A lesson plan should give some indication of how long the lesson will take.

Topic/Title. The topic or title summarizes the activity or what you want to teach. You should plan the topic carefully by considering the place of the lesson in the curriculum. Examples of titles might be, "A Nature Walk" or "Making Animal Puppets."

Objectives. Objectives are specific outcomes you expect to see students develop. One objective might be for students to be able to demonstrate how to express 'my' and 'your' with body parts in the target language. You can have more than one objective in a lesson plan, but they should be measurable in some way.

Materials/Equipment. Be sure to indicate if the lesson requires any special materials (such as paper or a wall chart) or equipment (a DVD player).

Procedure/Activity. Describe the actual steps to be taken and give some idea of what the teacher should say. For example, "A. The teacher will pass an animal bingo sheet out to each student and explain how to play using the target language."

Practice/Homework. When we teach endangered languages, it seems the lessons are squeezed into just one or two lessons per week. Students can't remember what they're taught unless they have some form of homework. Homework also allows the family to learn what the child is learning.

Assessment. Assessment allows you and others to measure the degree to which students have met the objectives. Assessment might consist of grading the homework, giving a test, keeping track of responses to questions in class, or judging how well the student performs in a trivia contest or skit.

Developing lesson plans can seem quite foreign and untraditional, but many teachers and principals expect teachers to have them. Having a good set of lesson plans is often required before permission is given to teach minority languages in schools. Once you get the hang of it, though, you might enjoy being able to trade activities with other teachers or to search on the internet for "Spanish lesson plans." I did that and was happy to find this site!

Making Dictionaries Friendly

Dictionaries are those thick books filled with lots of abbreviations, right? One way to make a dictionary less scary is to organize words by topic: animals, plants, trees, colors, numbers, family, clans, the house, the classroom, jobs, etc. When you organize words that way, it's easier for people to learn words, easier for speakers to see what's missing, and easier for teachers to develop vocabulary lessons.

A topical dictionary can be made by a language committee or just one speaker. The speakers should agree on a topic to discuss, and then a moderator should write the words on a blackboard where everyone can see. Someone else should be secretary and write or type everything up. The secretary can also make photocopies of the day's work to review and discuss further at the next meeting. We've also found it helpful to make sound recordings of one speaker reading the day's words immediately after each session.

One trap to avoid is fights over differences in the way people say things. We try to document those differences instead of fighting about them: when there are two ways to say a word, we record everyone's initials with their preferred form, and then list the one with the most votes first:

   yanasa (AB, CD, DE), yasana (EF)   buffalo

Another way to make dictionaries friendlier is to add dots between syllables (the way they do in songs):

   ya•na•sa   buffalo

Sometimes it's hard to know what the English name is for a plant, tree, or bird. Field guides sometimes help, especially if they're very local. It's usually better, though, to bring someone in who knows the English and scientific names.

When you have several thousand words or so, it's nice to distribute what you have to others in the community. That gives them a chance to make corrections or add different pronunciations.

Topical dictionaries are usually smaller than alphabetical dictionaries, but they can be quite large. Jim Kari's Dena'ina Topical Dictionary is 397 pages!


You can easily turn a topical dictionary into a children's dictionary or beginning reader by adding pictures and leaving out the hard words. For a bigger challenge, you can find out how to combine written words with sound recordings to make a talking dictionary.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Drawing Software for Kids: Tux Paint

Tux Paint is a free, open-source drawing program for children aged 3 to 12. It can run on Windows, Mac OS X, and other platforms. With Tux Paint, it's easy to make drawings, add stamps (images) from their stamp library, and add text. Each time you use a stamp, the name of the image is read aloud. Below is the sum of my efforts, with a label in Koasati:


Because it's open source, Tux Paint is also customizable. With some preparation and help, teachers can create their own library of images and even record words in their own languages. Artwork can be printed or saved and edited for use in flash cards, calendars, and other projects.

Teachers should plan to spend some time reading the documentation and may need just a little help from a techie. It took me a long time to find where drawings were stored in Vista. I'm looking forward to playing with this more, though, and I'm quite a bit older than 12!