Mobile App to Preserve Lakota Language for Future Generations

The Lakota Language Consortium released a new edition of its dictionary in an overhauled mobile app intended for use in Lakota reservation schools, as well as schools with a large Lakota community.

Giovanni Albanese | Government Technology | December 22, 2022

Looking to bring cultural tradition to a new generation through technology, a Native American nonprofit that works to preserve the language and culture of its people released a new digital edition of its dictionary through an overhauled version of its mobile app.

The hope of the New Lakota Dictionary — its third edition, first published in 2008 and again in 2011 — and the free accompanying app is to enable primarily the youth Lakota speakers to hear the language, thus preserving it for future generations, the South Dakota-based Lakota Language Consortium (LLC) said Monday in a news release.

The release said that the dictionary and app arrive at a time when the Lakota language, and Native American tongues as a whole, have been on a steep decline, dating back to the 1950s. Now, native speakers in their 70s and the Lakota youth aren’t getting the knowledge to continue the culture, the release said.

“The main goal is to make this reference tool accessible to Lakota language teachers and students in the schools in Lakota communities, as well as to autodidactic learners of the language,” LLC Deputy Director Alex FireThunder told Government Technology in an email. “This is the primary pedagogical material that educators and learners need for learning the language and helping to revitalize it.”

FireThunder, who also serves as an Oglala Lakota language instructor, said the dictionary uses consistent phonemic orthography, and unlike previous dictionaries, it is based entirely on authentic discourse recorded from native speakers. Native speakers were involved in the creation of glosses, definitions, translations of example sentences, as well as other parts of entries. Features of the layout and content match those of the most recent dictionaries for the world’s largest languages, he said. The new edition has 41,000 total entries, up from 23,000 in the second edition.

The app first launched in 2014 but received a complete overhaul as part of the new dictionary release. It uses lemmatization, which groups together different forms of the same word so the user can look up any of them in the same entry, and includes functions for searching for complex word forms within example sentences, comprehensive conjugation charts, recordings of native speakers pronouncing the entry words, and a full text search of more than 50,000 sentences, according to FireThunder.

He said the dictionaries, apps and software will be used in Lakota reservation schools, as well as schools with a large Lakota community, such as Rapid City and Sioux Falls in South Dakota, and Denver, Colo. He added that LLC needed to update the dictionary because previous versions were unreliable and inadequate.

“The main problems with the dictionaries had to do with inconsistent spelling and the use of non-phonemic orthographies — writing systems that do not sufficiently reflect the pronunciation,” FireThunder said. “Previous dictionaries didn’t gloss or define many words correctly and didn’t provide adequate coverage of the lexicon. None of the older Lakota dictionaries of significant size were actually done in close collaboration with native speakers.”

FireThunder said that many of the K-12 schools throughout Lakota country and in urban settings have made Lakota language education a priority, with some aiming to implement Lakota as the primary language of instruction. Most of the higher education institutions, colleges and universities in the state of South Dakota offer Lakota language courses, FireThunder said. He is confident the language and culture of the Lakota people will reach students from elementary schools through higher education.

“There continue to be challenges to language work within the education system, but there are many educators and administrators who are putting in the work to ensure that the language reaches our students,” he said.