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Cell phone technology keeps endangered Cherokee language a tap away

By Rex Hodge

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    CHEROKEE, North Carolina (WLOS) — So few people speak Cherokee now, the language is considered endangered. But there are ongoing efforts to keep it alive.

The latest endeavor involves technology most people carry around every day.

Within the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), there are now fewer than 200 people who speak Cherokee as a first language.

“The low 170-ish; we were at 225 pre-COVID,” says EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed.

Combining the 400,000 Cherokee between the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band centered in Western North Carolina, less than 2% speak their native tongue. It’s a level Sneed says keeps the language in a state of emergency, severely endangered and spoken mainly by elders.

“The challenge now is getting enough younger people involved,” Sneed says.

Enter Motorola — The Cherokee language is now available on the company’s cell phones that support Android 12.

“A tool that we can utilize to help the generation that’s coming up to become more familiar with it is a positive,” says Sneed.

He says other smart phones have a Cherokee syllabary keyboard, but Motorola is simplifying the language’s 85 characters down to those most often used, with a user-friendly focus.

“They have the concerted effort to work with indigenous people groups to incorporate the traditional languages into the technologies so that the languages don’t disappear forever,” Sneed says.

He says this is a useful tool, especially adding it to Cherokee language classes in schools on the Qualla boundary.

“It’s going to be imperative that they incorporate that into the curriculum and into their everyday teaching methodology,” says Sneed.

“I think it’s a great idea because kids are so technology-oriented right now,” says Annette Rosca.

She and her husband are visiting from Florida, taking in the Museum of the Cherokee. Outside stands a giant sculpture of Sequoyah–the inventor of the syllabary. Rosca says the language on cellphones will make a big contribution especially for the young.

“If it’s right there at their fingertips they will go for it,” she says.

“And I think when that happens, we’ll begin to see it where it will just become commonplace. That’s the hope,” says Sneed.

Motorola says it’s working to share its digitizing method with other globalization professionals.

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