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Science Nation: New Home Movies Resurrect Endangered American Indian Language

3 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. Native Americans dance outside in dresses and capes, hopping on each foot.

[explosion]

[chanting]

(male narrator) The Ojibwa language was once spoken all around the Great Lakes. But now, like many indigenous tongues, it is endangered. These days, it's most often heard at ceremonies.

(Describer) The costumes have different colors and feathers.

[chanting]

University of Minnesota Duluth education professor Mary Hermes is working hard to keep the language alive by bringing together tribal elders and video technology.

[speaking Ojibwa]

(Describer) On a video, an elder speaks with two people in a garden.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, she videotapes fluent speakers in everyday situations. Elders then help transcribe those short movies. The result? Realistic language lessons from master speakers, archived for the future, available to students and linguists everywhere.

(Hermes) As a group, we'd sit around and think of a theme or a story. And within that, the elders improvised the language. We're hoping that you hear it in an everyday way. "Tie your shoes. Get up. Hey, Mom, what's for breakfast?" Informal speaking that's not necessarily formal grammar, but the way you would speak it.

[speaking Ojibwa]

(Describer) An elder speaks with Hermes.

[speaking Ojibwa]

Uh-huh.

[both speaking Ojibwa]

(narrator) One of her "movie stars" is excited about this new focus on preserving Ojibwa. We had fun,

(Describer) Ruby Boshey:

and I think that any way that you can help people learn the language, 'cause I'm afraid that if we lose it-- the elders are dying off.

(narrator) Hermes has built trust with the Ojibwa community. She has organized workshops and immersion classes and developed a series of interactive, educational games. She stresses the benefits of saving the language will pay off beyond just this tribe. People should realize it's not just for the Ojibwa people that we want to save the language. There's 10,000 years of human evolution and knowledge in that language.

(narrator) New words are always being added to the Ojibwa vocabulary, as happens with all living languages. Hermes is trying to keep it that way.

(Describer) The globe turns.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Tribal language educator Mary Hermes at the University of Minnesota, Duluth documents endangered languages. With support from the National Science Foundation, her team is working with elders to record, translate, transcribe, and annotate conversations. At the same time she is helping train new scholars, young and old, who want to speak the Ojibwe language. Her team is going beyond just translating text; they’re creating videos of conversations among the elders. The videos, which will be a more engaging teaching aid for contemporary students, will become part of interactive multimedia learning modules. These modules may serve as a model for efforts to revitalize other endangered languages.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 8
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12