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Iñupiaq language software a lifeline in efforts to preserve Alaska Native cultural traditions

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

There are many ways to keep up one's native language: speaking with elders, classes, practice with friends and in recent years technology has offered a few more tools. A variety of organizations in the North Slope Borough, on Alaska's Arctic coast, are taking advantage of language software to help combat language loss and strengthen Iñupiaq speakers across the region.

In 2011, the Iñupiat Heritage Center and North Slope Borough purchased 1,000 hard copies of the Iñupiat Rosetta Stone, as well as 10,000 online licenses. Those were distributed to interested North Slope residents, as well as community organizations like Ilisagvik college.

"It was a way to revive our language," said Patuk Glen, the center's curator.

NANA, an Alaska Native regional corporation, did the same thing, she said, which inspired her to get the North Slope region on a similar track.

"I think it's great," Glen said. "It really forces you to have to speak Iñupiaq."

It helps with pronunciation, she said, and is an excellent and practical tool for making use of the language more of an everyday habit.

There is currently a computer station in the Heritage Center for public use of the Rosetta Stone software, welcome to walk-in use for a little extra practice.

"The folks at Rosetta Stone have said that it's just a tool to help you learn the basics," Glen said. Those basics, once solid, can then be utilized in daily life -- at least that's the goal.

At Ilisagvik, staff have been gathering every week to work together on their language skills.

"Upon my appointment as president it was important for me to support all of us at Ilisagvik in supporting our own mission of perpetuating our Iñupiaq culture, history, language and traditions," wrote Ilisagvik President Pearl Brower in an email. 

"Since we had the Rosetta Stone program in Iñupiaq, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for our staff to convene one hour every week to speak Iñupiaq. I have found this to be a great experience for all of us to get together as a group as well as an important learning tool for all of us to start learning the traditional language of our region," Brower added.

The Iñupiaq version of the world famous language software is hardly the only option for language technology. Glen, in conjunction with the North Slope Borough and with some grant assistance, developed an exciting new language app released this summer.

The Iñupiaq Wordfinder App is available for free through the Apple App Store and the Android Play Store. The application provides the user with an Iñupiat word of the day, as well as the ability to search an electronic dictionary in either Iñupiat or English.

Glen said there has been a high demand for use of the Rosetta Stone software, and she's gotten good feedback for the new app as well.

Just recently, in October, network versions of the Rosetta Stone program became available at North Slope Borough schools.

The school district also uses another program, VIVA, to teach Iñupiaq. That software has been the preferred option because it offers four different Iñupiaq dialects.

In other recent tech developments, as of September the Iñupiat Heritage Center's collection became searchable online. That includes 3,000 historic photographs, 7,000 video archives and 1,100 objects.

Glen and the center's staff are still working on making more of their unique collection available online, including some of the rarer items.

"My favorite is the audio collection," Glen said. Recorded interviews with elders that go back decades are a priceless piece of history, she said, and are excellent sources on everything from old-time Eskimo law to traditional medicine.

This story was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.