For some people, unless they have heard a word before,
its proper pronunciation can be quite difficult.
Such can be the case with languages that never had a written version but
are now translated into printed form. For anyone who has studied a second
language, the difficulty is learning when and how to use the correct tense,
gender, verb conjugation and pronunciation.
The Lakota language – and any other American Indian language – is no
different. Pronunciation, the proper use of modifiers and knowledge of
sentence structure is important when it comes to saving a language that was
never written. The intent is to preserve the language as close to its
original form as possible.
Earl Bullhead, a Lakota educator on the Lower Brule Reservation in South
Dakota, has developed a phonetics chart that is easy to follow and offers
proper pronunciation. He also has a step-by-step approach that offers
students a chance to learn not just a core word, but when other letters or
words are added to make it plural or gender-qualified, or when it takes on
a slightly different meaning.
Bullhead has developed a system that includes 10 lessons
His lessons show the use
of conjugations so that the student will be able to visualize the word. The
system includes special modifiers that change the meaning of the word from,
for example, first person to second or third person.
He sets up the courses in 15-week increments of 10 lessons each. He has
also, with help from technical experts, developed a computer program that
allows students to overlay diacritical markings onto letters to change the
sound of the letter. The student can also add words and letters to other
words to change person, tense or gender.
Bullhead explained his program to teachers during the recent South Dakota
Indian Education Summit in Rapid City.
South Dakota, which has mandated that the Lakota language and culture be
taught in the state’s public schools beginning with the current school
year, is close to accepting Bullhead’s system. The language in the public
schools most generally will be taught by non-Lakota speakers who will be
trained with this system. They will also receive help from Lakota speakers
who will, on a part-time basis, be present in classrooms.
30% of Plains Tribes still speak their own languages
In the Great Plains, it is estimated that 30 percent of all members of the
various tribes speak their language. On the Navajo reservation the
percentage is higher, closer to 80%, but in other parts of the country the indigenous
languages are almost extinct.
The Plains tribes are not in jeopardy of losing their languages because
there are many people who are focused on teaching the language to not just
elementary, middle and high school students, but to adults as well.
“I started the [computer] program to put emphasis on certain syllables as a
way of teaching the kids the words and how to write them,” Bullhead said.
“This will make the best of two languages. We now have Lakota III students
reading Ella Deloria texts,” he said.
Bullhead said that he rewards students with stories and songs when they
correctly use the Lakota language and learn anything new about the
language. Usually his stories involve humor and a message.
The students are also encouraged to research some of the original words
that have changed over time.
The system Bullhead developed teaches the words by visual image, which is
how the language developed.
“They have to think before they can speak,” he said.
“The language is part of the success for students. With the language comes
a cultural way of teaching. It shows respect for the student and for the
teachers, and that’s a key to learning.”
Bullhead was awarded the Teacher of the Year award by Crazy Horse Memorial,
and received the award at the annual Native American Day celebration Oct. 8
at the memorial.