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September 6, 2000

Sonja Alexander
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1761)

John Ira Petty
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
(Phone: 281/483-5111)

Release: H00-135

NASA Technology Could Save Vanishing Native American Languages

The most up-to-the-minute language-instruction technology, used in the space program, may come to the rescue of some venerable old languages and cultures.

Native American educators are looking at technology from NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, in their efforts to preserve and teach their peoples' languages. Johnson's Language Education Center, one of the largest and most advanced of its kind, teaches astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and others English, Russian and Japanese.

Vernon Finley and Johnny Arlee, language instructors at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation at Pablo, in northwestern Montana, recently visited the language center.

Arlee teaches the Salish Cultural Leadership Program at the college. The program's goal is to pass cultural leadership on to future generations by developing leaders to replace the elders. "Most who still speak the Salish language are elders," said Arlee, who at 59 is among the youngest of the fewer than 100 who still speak their native Salish language.

Finley, 46, teaches Kootenai. "While there have been language preservation efforts, they have not produced many fluent speakers," said Finley. "Unfortunately, the Kootenai are even fewer in number than the Salish, with fewer elders to speak and teach the language." Both cultures view language fluency as a vital part of the development of future leaders.

The teachers' visit to Johnson verified that they are moving in the right direction. Although they are concerned that they must produce many of their own materials, the center provides models that they can use in developing their tools.

"I believe the two visitors have seen technology and methodology that will help them teach and preserve their languages. It was a very productive visit, " said Tony Vanchu, director of the Language Education Center.

NASA's continuing efforts to transfer benefits of space-related research and development to the private sector are coordinated by Johnson's Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization.


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