Can an App Save an Ancient Language?

Joshua Hinson’s first biological son was born in 2000. His son’s birth marked the start of the sixth generation that would grow up speaking English instead of Chickasaw, which was the primary language his ancestors had spoken for hundreds of years. Hinson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Texas. Other than a small handful of words, he knew almost nothing about his ancestral language—formally known as Chikashshanompa’. Hinson had a few pangs of sadness over the years about what was lost, but it didn’t really affect him—until his son was born.

As he counted the 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes of his firstborn child, Hinson realized he had nothing to teach his son about his Native American roots. The only thing he had to pass on was his tribal citizenship card. Hinson wanted to bequeath more than just a piece of paper; he wanted his son to be a part of Chickasaw culture. He recognized that the most direct way to understand his culture was to speak the language. But to make that happen, Hinson had to start with himself.

“I had family stories, but not the lived experience of being an Indian,” says Hinson. “I wanted to become a better Indian, and what better way than learning the language.”

As Hinson began to learn the Chickasaw language, he found that native speakers were in perilously short supply. In December 2013, the last person on the planet who spoke only Chickasaw, Emily Johnson Dickerson, died at the age of 93 in her home in central Oklahoma. Less than 100 tribal members remained fluent in Chickasaw, although they could also speak English. All of these individuals were over the age of 60, and no one under 35 could speak conversational Chickasaw. None of the rest of the tribe’s 62,000 members knew more than a few words of Chickasaw. After months of searching, Hinson apprenticed himself to a fluent speaker of Chickasaw, ultimately leaving Texas to move back to the center of tribal life in Oklahoma in 2004. By 2007, tribal leaders had appointed him to direct a project to revitalize the Chickasaw language.

Read more: Scientific American