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LakotaStone: South Dakotan Crowdsources Content to Save Language from Extinction

photo: courtesy Biagio Arobba

By Paul Glader

Biagio Arobba wants to use computer languages to save dying languages. 

And, yes, there are dying languages. The Endangered Language Fund projects half of the 6,000 languages spoken on earth will disappear in the next century. So Arobba and others are pioneering new ways to transfer language that larger players like Rosetta Stone may overlook.

Arobba, a Rapid City, S.D.,-based programmer, has built a user-generated content site – with the goal to preserve endangered indigenous dialects such as Lakota and Ho Chunk. Lakota is well-documented according to some linguists. The website isn’t to any one language, though, and Arobba wants it to work with other languages such as French, Spanish and German, not just Lakota. But Arobba, 32, is starting with the Lakota language because he’s a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, where Lakota is spoken. 

For Native American languages, there’s a scarcity of learning materials,” Arobba says. “Native American languages are in a crisis and we have not moved very far beyond paper and pencil methods.”

The Administration for Native Americans in Washington D.C. reports that Native Americans spoke around 300 languages in the early days of the United States. The number has dropped to 175 with only 20 taught to children. The rest, it says, “are classified as deteriorating or nearing extinction.”

Arobba’s site lets users create “audio tags” for pictures, similar to tagging on Facebook or Flickr. An audio recorder allows a Lakota speaker to record a message with each picture. They can also post a series of audio or text below each picture. In essence, it’s a Flickr version of Rosetta Stone. The pictures and album can be embedded into other web sites as well.

The potential for learning languages online is already vast: Wikiversity, a multilingual hub project of the Wikimedia Foundation, is building encyclopedic information in a variety of languages. Some educational sites such as have potential to teach spoken languages using online video. offers Gaelic (Irish or Scottish) among dozens of other languages. boasts more than a million users learning several languages and has mobile apps to build vocabulary. The ambitious Rosetta Project by the Long Now Foundation aims to document what it estimates as 7,000 languages currently in use, starting with 500. Leaders of that project believe miniaturized gadgets will create easier ways to create video, photos and transcripts to learn languages. It will use an open collection of recordings under a Creative Commons license to make the language material widely accessible.

Indigenous languages don’t have nearly as many opportunities, though, as globalization tends to diminish native languages in favor of the most widely spoken languages and changes the way indigenous people live and communicate.

The Endangered Language Fund in New Haven, Conn., offers grants to preserve endangered languages. But, as a small non-profit, it has difficulty funding programs for all 6,000 languages. Another small, non-profit web site called provides online resources – worksheets, pronunciation guides and picture dictionaries — to preserve Native American languages. “Our site is not beautiful,” it’s home-page reads. “Probably it never will be.” But it has resources for 800 indigenous languages from Algonquin to Mayan. The site is “intended to be one that will not crash the kind of computers they have at Indian grade schools,” write site managers Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis.

LiveandTell, however, shows “a difference between a one-time Web designer project versus, something that enables everyone to do the same,” Arobba says. “So, you don’t need the Web designer… or at least it makes the Web designers job much easier. It takes 4 hours what used to take 1-2 weeks or more.”

Arobba says that while Rosetta Stone’s endangered language program is excellent, it takes a long time to produce a limited number of languages. Rosetta Stone acknowledges it has only half a dozen languages in the program and each takes roughly two years to capture and produce. It released a Navajo language program in 2010 (

Arobba’s site is already up and running with several languages and a handful of clients and users. Sitting Bull School in Little Eagle, S.D., for example, already is using the site. He plans to expand it to other reservations and school systems as rapidly as possible. LiveAndTell, he says, has no upfront participation fees, users can sign in and start creating content immediately.

A spokeswoman at Rosetta Stone said their products are more scientifically grounded in the process of learning languages because their endangered languages are led by “scientists, linguists and people immersed in these cultures and languages.”

Arobba, however, believes his project is more organic. Native speakers can take photos and record words depicting life familiar to the young people who are learning the languages. It also doesn’t require front end grants and high production costs the way Rosetta Stone’s programs do.

As it expands, Arobba is working with area tribes to integrate the web site into tribal sites and running workshops so Lakota speakers can learn how to input photos, audio and text. He’s planning mobile versions for the iPhone and Android platforms. He’s also collaborating with Oglala Lakotah College and others for National Science Foundation funding.

@PaulGlader is managing editor of

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