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Experts creating robust online dictionary as part of Cherokee Nation's language preservation work

Cherokee Nation
Cherokee Nation is turning an old casino into the Durbin Feeling Language Center to house all of its language preservation efforts.

While Cherokee Nation has been building out its language program’s immersion schools, linguists and speakers are also hard at work on an online dictionary to help preserve the language.

The tribe, of course, has word lists.

“But language, obviously, is just so much more than just that. So, we need this resource as a way to really mine and expand our understanding of Cherokee, and then we can use that both for creating materials at the immersion school, for [the master apprentice program] and pretty much any kind of language efforts that we have going forward,” Cherokee Immersion School Administrator Wyman Kirk said during a virtual event last weekend.

The dictionary will be a full-fledged digital resource where learners can hear Cherokee in everyday use, an opportunity that can be hard to come by as the number of first-language speakers dwindles.

“And so, for most people, they don’t have access to a Cherokee language speaker in their family or in their home or even online. So, there’s this lack of being able to hear the language all the time causes what they learn – some people don’t retain it as well,” said Cherokee Language Program Manager Roy Boney.

There are around 2,000 first-language speakers remaining among 392,000 members of the tribe, and officials have gone all-in the past several years on initiatives to teach more people the language. Immersion

Kirk said while Cherokee proved resistant to changes after English-speaking Europeans first came to North America, the language is now in a period where it may be more vulnerable.

“As we lose our first-language speakers and we create a larger group of second-language speakers, until we can create that environment in which we have first language speakers being produced again, there is this danger of creating a Cherokee that’s being used that has a lot more English aspects to it,” Kirk said.

At-Large Tribal Councilor Julia Coates said all members share responsibility for preserving their language.

“Almost all of us in the Cherokee Nation are using a foreign language as our primary or only language. Have you ever thought about it that way? We speak a foreign language as our primary language. That’s what English is,” Coates said.

Language officials with the tribe said the online dictionary is aimed at preserving the language so well that words spoken in 500 years will sound the same as they do today.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.