Rosetta Stone adds Ojibwe to language preservation initiative

Machine learning and AI power the technology that will help preserve endangered languages. Members and descendants of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will have free access to lessons.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

The Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe, people have faced enemies familiar to Indigenous people worldwide: Colonialism and imperialism. 

In North America, these forces arrived in the form of westward European expansion. As the nations of America and Canada grew, generations of settlers forced Indigenous peoples from their land. Tribal children often had to attend government-run schools. People could even face punishment for speaking their native languages.

After generations of discrimination and oppression, the Ojibwe language became endangered. 

Recently, the Minnesota-based Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe partnered with Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language Program to mitigate and reverse some of that language and cultural erosion.

"As Anishinaabe people, our language was given to us by the creator; learning that language helps us connect with our culture and live our lives in a good way," Mille Lacs Band chief executive Melanie Benjamin said in an announcement published by Rosetta Stone's parent company, California-based IXL Learning. 

"This partnership with Rosetta Stone is important because it will make learning Ojibwe more accessible to Band members and others and will help preserve our culture for generations to come," Benjamin added.

What makes a language endangered?

According to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), when new generations of children and adults don't have the need or opportunity to learn a language, that language becomes endangered. When the need to speak the language or the people who speak it are destroyed, the language becomes extinct.

Extinction is distinct from what happened to early modern (Shakespearean-era) English, according to the LSA, because Shakespearean English evolved into modern English. Language endangerment or extinction is also different from the evolution of ancient Latin, which is the basis of modern languages like Spanish and Italian.

According to Rosetta Stone's corporate leadership, 50% to 90% of the world's 6,800 languages could become extinct within this century. As new generations of people become more isolated from their heritage, their ancestral languages slip further out of reach.

"We often think of languages as what we speak or write but overlook how they provide priceless insight into cultures," Paul Mishkin, CEO of IXL Learning, said in an announcement. "Indigenous languages are becoming endangered at an alarming rate, and many Native Americans are at risk of losing a vital part of their heritage."

Mishkin added, "Our collaboration with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has created resources that support the revitalization of the tribe's language, help pass down knowledge to the next generation of members, and expose the wider public to the Band's rich culture."

Here's how the language preservation program started

The Endangered Languages Program, or ELP for short, began its preservation efforts more than 20 years ago, according to Rosetta Stone spokesperson Eric Bates. One of the program's first projects focused on revitalizing the language of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida

The ELP realized that it could use Rosetta Stone's digital resources and speech recognition technology to meet several objectives:

  • Develop teaching techniques that mirror and honor the way languages are taught within a community

  • Create an engaging program that works at multiple educational levels from kindergarten through college

  • Capture the knowledge of a community's tribal elders

  • Bridge gaps between older generations and younger learners who are more likely use online resources

Although projects to preserve language are always ongoing, the Endangered Language Program team told ZDNet that since the program's launch, it has worked to complete "more than 10 preservation projects, developed strong relationships in Native American communities, and helped create unique resources that help Indigenous communities reclaim and protect their languages."

Other ELP projects include helping to preserve the Louisiana-based Chitimacha Tribe's language and the Navajo language. Although an estimated 100,000 people speak Navajo, "the decline in fluency among younger generations of tribal members is progressing at an alarming rate."

If an Indigenous group wants to participate, they may contact ELP. Program leaders will determine if there's an opportunity to support a new language preservation project.

According to the Endangered Language Program, "Each Indigenous language is unique, as are the cultures and people that speak them, so projects are evaluated with each tribe so that resources are tailored to perfectly fit their needs. Rosetta Stone then works with experts from the communities, linguists, and artists, to create the most effective and engaging project possible."

In addition, the ELP notes, "Rosetta Stone's ELP team works with Indigenous groups to preserve cultural assets with software that is specifically designed to revitalize at-risk languages."

The platform uses spoken audio, written words, and images to aid language acquisition. 

"Mirroring the natural way people learn languages in their families, this approach uses visual and conceptual clues to help learners build an enduring understanding of languages through context and reasoning," the Endangered Language Program team added. 

Technology supports language preservation

Rosetta Stone said its TruAccent speech technology uses machine learning to evaluate each user's pronunciation in real-time. For example, the technology can compare a language learner's pronunciation to that of a native Ojibwe speaker. That feedback helps language learners improve their spoken communication skills.

In simple terms, machine learning involves some artificial intelligence, or AI, functions. These technologies, in turn, use data and algorithms to make decisions and predictions when capturing, processing, and organizing new information. 

In the context of language education, this allows an app to provide instant feedback. While this doesn't replace actual conversation with living human beings, machine learning may aid in familiarizing a learner with the basics of a language.

"While the primary purpose of each project is to help communities reclaim their language and culture, there are additional economic development benefits for the community as well," the ELP acknowledges. "Each project tries to work with (and compensate) as many first speakers as possible, speakers of varying proficiency, as well as engage local artists, media, and language experts."

After its early successes, the ELP team said Indigenous groups contacted them to learn more about opportunities to work together. This sustained interest "further honed Rosetta Stone's focus on using technology-based language learning resources to help preserve endangered languages."

"Language and culture are inextricably linked," the ELP team notes. "As languages are lost, cultural identities that developed over many generations become increasingly at risk, which can have a devastating effect on communities. A loss of language contributes to a loss of identity, which is essential for the survival of a culture. Ultimately, the ELP's main goal is to work with Indigenous groups to protect their cultures by ensuring their languages are preserved."

This article was reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila abdalla, a woman with curly hair, looks at the camera

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and successful writing at Central Washington University for over 21 years.

Currently, Abdalla serves as a Washington state career coach and advocate for individuals on temporary state assistance. Abdalla has devoted her career, teaching, and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Above all, she is committed to her clients' and students' complete experience, raising awareness of BIPOC issues in employment, language, community, and culture.

Abdalla leads with equity in management and nonprofit volunteering, and continues to develop her own understandings of these complex issues — both professionally and in her lived experiences.

Laila Abdalla is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Last reviewed April 17, 2022.

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