UNC researchers develop tool to teach Cherokee language

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The Cherokee language is in danger. There are very few native speakers left in America, let alone North Carolina.

To help produce smoother Cherokee speakers, a group of teachers and students are working on creating software that will translate English documents into Cherokee. Among them, Ben Frey, professor of American studies and Cherokee citizen of the Eastern Group, teamed up with Mohit Bansal, John R. & Louise S. Parker Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at UNC and PhD student Shiyue Zhang.

The project started in 2019, according to Bansal, who is leading the IT side of the creation of this new tool.

He works closely with Zhang, whose role is primarily to collect data and help create the translation tool.

Zhang said the overall goal of the project is to revitalize the endangered language and increase its daily use in the community.

“We want to increase the exposure of the Cherokee language to the general public, so that people can get to know this language,” Zhang said.

They hope that the translations from this software can also help improve the learning of second language learners or students of New Kituwah Academy, an immersion school for Cherokee language, culture, traditions and history. .

“We can use the examples of good and accurate Cherokee language that appear in this book to create classroom lessons around which second language learners could benefit,” Frey said. “We could create more activities than the children of the [New Kituwah Academy] could benefit from it.

Frey said this type of technology can help researchers learn more about the structure and rules of the Cherokee language itself by translating documents.

Many languages ​​have sentences that wouldn’t make sense with just the basic translation rules, Frey said, and one would have to be familiar with the language in practice to understand them.

“We can find out if Cherokee has things like that too,” Frey said.

Frey notes that the project alone won’t save the Cherokee language, but he and his colleagues are hoping it will pave the way for more programs like this.

“This project will not save the language on its own, but this project can lead to all kinds of other initiatives that will prove useful in themselves,” Frey said.

Bansal said that with the user experience and technology developed for this project, they hope they can bring this work to other researchers who are studying endangered languages.

“Another thing that Shiyue is looking at is, ‘can we relate to other languages ​​and work with other communities using endangered languages? “, Said Bansal.

Right now, the team has a demo version of the website, but there are more steps in the process before the tool becomes fully available and accurate to use.

“We want to improve the basic translation function before we start publishing it,” Frey said.

Frey said that after using the tool to produce a translation, second language learners will copy it for accuracy, Frey said. Then, a fluent speaker will make a final correction and sign the data, which will then be fed back into the software. If they find a bad translation, they are able to correct it and this in turn can be added to the algorithm.

The project still has a long way to go before it’s completely ready to release, but the team is working hard to make it happen.

Bansal and Frey both pointed out that an important aspect they want to add to this project is to have more people in the loop.

With the help of fluent speakers, they will be able to make this tool ideal for second language learners and immersion programs.

“The next step will probably be to try and recruit more fluent elders to use it and see if it’s a very good tool to use with the. [New Kituwah Academy]”said Frey.

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