Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Using computers for reversing language shift : ethical and pragmatic implications from a Wasco case study

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  • Indigenous languages worldwide are rapidly disappearing, forced out of use by the spread of dominant Western culture and its languages. On the Warm Springs reservation of Oregon, the Culture and Heritage department, the tribal agency in charge of language preservation, is offering instruction in all three languages of the reservation: Wasco, Sahaptin and Northern Paiute. Most of the class offerings target the children of the tribes. In an effort to stimulate their interest, Culture and Heritage has considered creating language learning computer games. During a ten-week internship with Culture and Heritage in the spring of 1999, I did preliminary research for a Wasco computer game. Using participant observation and informal interviews with children, elders and Warm Springs Elementary School teachers, I developed a possible structure and scenario for a game centered on traditional subsistence activities. I also identified obstacles to the realization of language computer games, such as lack of technological resources in Warm Springs, and elders' resistance to computers. Results and recommendations were issued in a public meeting in Warm Springs and presented in a report. This thesis is a case study exploring in greater depth issues that arose during my internship, like the politics of anthropological fieldwork on reservations, and issues related to the Wasco computer game project, such as the pragmatics of language preservation and the role of computers in reversing language shift. On the latter, it was found that the introduction of computers tends to disrupt traditional hierarchies and patterns for the transmission of knowledge. In view of the cultural, financial and logistic costs, the benefits of Computer Assisted Language Learning for the preservation of severely endangered languages are uncertain at best.
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