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Natives team with software maker in language project

Kyle Hopkins
One of the voices that users of the North Slope Inupiaq lessons will hear is the rich, slow timbre of former Barrow whaling captain and Inupiaq language professor, James Nageak, 70.
Photo courtesy James Nageak
Rosetta Stone materials for learning the Inupiaq language.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

And now an Inupiaq language lesson.

Qaqasauraq. Noun. The modern Inupiaq term for a computer. Loosely translated, it means "little brain."

Ready to learn more? Fire up the qaqasauraq for the latest of three new computer programs designed to teach variations of the fading Alaska Native language.

The North Slope Borough and Rosetta Stone software company plan to unveil a program this spring specially designed to teach the North Slope Inupiaq dialect, using the photos and voices of Inupiaq people recorded in Barrow.

There are as few as 1,500 fluent speakers of Inupiaq in Alaska, estimates Fairbanks linguist Michael Krauss. Once, it was the primary language of the northern and northwest regions of the state.

Barrow-born Edna MacLean, a former Inupiaq professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent two years working on the Inupiaq program. She translated thousands of words and phrases from English to the North Slope Inupiaq dialect of the Inuit language.

The job is nearly done. Soon the program will be available to schools and households. Just in time for Inupiaq language experts like MacLean, 66.

"A lot of us speakers are getting older, but we sure would like our children and grandchildren to have access to something like this," she said.

Like many Alaska Natives who came of age in earlier generations, MacLean was punished in school for speaking her language, she said. "I yelled something in Inupiaq at the girl in front of me, and (my third-grade teacher) came over and pulled my ear."

Today the ability to speak indigenous languages is a prized skill.

MacLean's son, Andrew, wrote and directed an Inupiaq-language movie in Barrow that he later adapted into a feature film that will screen at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. In Kotzebue, where the NANA Regional Corp. has completed regional Inupiaq dialect teaching programs in partnership with Rosetta Stone, a private Inupiaq immersion school offers classes to students as young as 3 years old.

Overall, Inupiaq is healthier than most traditional Alaska Native tongues. Of the 20 Alaska Native languages , one -- Eyak -- is extinct. Only Inupiaq and Central Yup'ik -- the native language of much of Southwestern Alaska -- are still spoken fluently by more than 1,000 people, Krauss estimates.

But the only way to keep languages alive is to teach them to children. And in many cases, Inupiaq is disappearing from homes as new parents raise kids in English-only households, MacLean said.

"The language is in danger of becoming extinct after maybe one or two generations," she said.

TARGETING ENDANGERED LANGUAGES

Arlington, Va., based Rosetta Stone sells computer software that teaches more than 30 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese, by showing people pictures, giving examples of proper speech and rating users on their pronunciation. Like an immersion school, you see and hear only the language you're learning.

American Indian groups looking to revive their languages began approaching the company for help in 1999. By 2004, Rosetta Stone had set up an endangered-language program to partner with Native groups around the world, said Marion Bittinger, manager of the program.

There's now software for learning Navajo, Mohawk and Inuttitut, an Inuit tongue spoken in Canada.

Among the two most recent are a pair of Alaska Inupiaq dialects: one for the coastal Kotzebue region, completed in 2007, and another inland dialect spoken in villages such as Kobuk and Selawik that was finished in 2010.

The company doesn't sell the endangered language programs itself. Typically, the software is instead distributed by its partners. In Alaska that means the Aqqaluk Trust, a nonprofit foundation NANA created, and the North Slope Borough.

"Most typically, the highest priority is to get the software into the schools for use by teachers," Bittinger said.

Between the two Northwest Alaska dialects, NANA has ordered thousands of copies of the Inupiaq Rosetta Stone programs and began sending free copies to the households of shareholders last year.

The company has already shipped more than 800 free copies to shareholder families, some by mail, some simply flown as freight on Bush planes to Inupiaq villages, said Hans Schaeffer of the Aqqaluk Trust in Kotzebue.

People and organizations bought more than 150 at $195 each, he said.

A 30-year-old Inupiaq whose family is from Kobuk and Kotzebue, Schaeffer said he's tried the software himself. As with the software for the North Slope dialect, the Northwest Alaska Inupiaq programs use photos of modern Inupiat and nearby places to teach the language.

"There are a lot of faces that I did recognize," Schaeffer said. "So when they come out with a word for like 'daughter,' there's a picture of a gal that I went to high school with."

NANA hopes the software raises Inupiaq comprehension rates in the region, where a 2005 survey found that only 14 percent of residents were fluent. According to the Aqqaluk Trust, the survey found that those who did speak the language were mostly 65 or older.

THE VOICE OF INUPIAQ

When the software for the North Slope Inupiaq dialect ships, one of the voices users will hear is the rich, slow timbre of former Barrow whaling captain and Inupiaq language professor James Nageak.

Nageak, 70, now lives in Anaktuvuk Pass, where he auditioned for the job over the phone. Soon he was on his way to Barrow for a week of hours-long recording sessions.

Although there are three separate teaching programs for Inupiaq, speakers of one dialect shouldn't have much trouble understanding another. To Nageak, who grew up in Kaktovik, for example, someone speaking the Kobuk flavor of Inupiaq has a slight "Southern drawl."

"It's just like if you're from Boston and you meet somebody from, let's say, New Orleans," he said.

Rosetta Stone expects the North Slope dialect software to be finished in a month or two. Certainly by spring, Bittinger said.

Exactly how it will be distributed -- including options for buying the software -- remain to be decided, said K.C. Miller, a project manager at the borough's Inupiat History Language and Culture division.

As of 2008, the project was expected to cost more than $500,000, with about $370,000 paid through a donation from Shell Oil, she said

MacLean expects the program to be distributed throughout the North Slope Borough.

ADULTS CAN LEARN LANGUAGE

Krauss, the former director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said the Rosetta Stone software is the best program of its kind that he knows of. But it's not magic, he said.

You still need to have conversations with other people to learn to fluently and easily speak a language.

"Nothing can replace another human being," Krauss said.

But can an adult who did not grow up speaking or hearing Inupiaq expect to ever become fluent in the Eskimo language?

Krauss believes so.

"Everybody can learn a first language, and that goes likewise for a second language, depending on the personality and the situation," he said.

One of the first people to buy a CD teaching the Inupiaq coastal dialect in Kotzebue was a woman from out of town, working at the local college campus, said Leland Barger a department director for the Aqqaluk Trust.

A week after buying the software, the woman stopped by his office, he said.

How is your day going, she asked in Inupiaq.

"I told her in Eskimo, 'It's 8:15 in the morning, and the day's just starting. So far so good,' " he said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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