The undergraduate degree programs in teaching Lakota language are moving ahead with the first cohorts gathering at two universities. Classes in the Lakota Language Education Action Program (LLEAP)
begin at Sitting Bull College
and the University of South Dakota - Native American Studies Department
in late August. One instructor at LLEAP/USD will be a young man who knows something about leaping between cultures and languages.
Dr. Armik Mirzayan is originally from Armenia. His first languages were Armenian and Farsi, and he was immersed in both English and Spanish after his family relocated to Los Angeles as refugees from the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Learning and speaking multiple languages was already a necessity in his world, so this interest in languages continued through his university study in physics at UCLA. After earning a Masters in Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Armik switched his graduate work to Linguistics. He learned Cochabamba Quechua, one of the Southern Quechua dialects spoken in Bolivia Quechuan. Even so, Armik received his PhD in Linguistics with a focus on phonology/phonetics in Lakota which he also learned.
Armik’s involvement in Native American language was seeded by a high school math teacher who encouraged him to discover American history for himself, learning about how it was lived, rather than relying solely on information from textbooks. His deep interest in Lakota began when he met David Rood at the University of Colorado and took Rood’s course on endangered languages. Armik went on to become a research assistant in Rood’s fieldwork documenting the Wichita and Lakota languages. He began to learn Lakota from the extensive resources at the University of Colorado, and from meeting with a small group of Native speakers once a week.
Armik says his background in physics came into play when considering the importance of sound and pronunciation in communication, but that psychology became crucial as well. In Lakota, Armik says, “in Lakota there are distinctions between unaspirated and aspirated sounds (k, kh, and kȟ). Meaning, aspiration - several other sound distinctions - is crucial for making meaning distinctions in the language. The sounds make completely different words and meanings, so you can’t afford to mispronounce. Habitual English use influences sound, like in intonation. In Lakota, questions do not have a rising intonation. Plus, ‘English thinking’ affects how a new language is learned and spoken, and it is natural for adult learners to carry ‘English thinking’ over into Lakota pronunciations.” Armik hopes that more field recordings of informal Lakota conversations can clearly establish the “Lakota thinking” at the heart of fluency.
When he teaches Lakota language and linguistics to LLEAP students, Armik will stress the importance of situations and context in usage. He says that Lakota “has been taken out of its natural context. The challenge is to both bring it back to those everyday contexts, and to bring it into new contexts. It is crucial for students to learn language in the way they will be using it.”
Armik thinks that the orthography of Lakota that is used in the LLC book will help LLEAP students get a handle on reading and pronunciation. When he was learning English, word spellings were so different from word pronunciations that he had difficulty catching on. With Lakota, however, the spellings match pronunciations so exactly that he was able to learn quickly.
Armik is impressed by the excitement at USD about LLEAP, and the new focus on language at the Native American Studies Department. “I really am extremely grateful that the LLC has provided this opportunity for revitalizing the Lakota language,” he says. “After being at the LSI
and seeing the impact it is making on the younger generation ... it is truly amazing!”
The best way to stay updated on LLEAP is to join the LLEAP Facebook site