Education | Opinion

Delphine Red Shirt: Teach the Lakota language like our elders wanted






Delphine Red Shirt. Photo by Rich Luhr

Lakota Sounds
By Delphine Red Shirt
Lakota Country Times Columnist
lakotacountrytimes.com

Albert White Hat, when he was alive, worked in traditional ways to gain consensus so that the Lakota language would be taught to second language learners. One of the ways in which he isolated parts of the language is in the pronunciation of the vowels.

He kept each vowel: a,e,i,o,u to two sounds, the basic vowel sound and it's nasal sound. This is important to beginning learners. Mainly for the reason that today, most teachers use approximately four sounds for each vowel. Why did Albert White Hat, then, insist on only two sounds for certain vowels: a, i, and u.

At a time when most teachers hired in schools on the reservations are not first-language (Lakota) speakers, the sound of the language seems less important than the diacritics that are commonly used to encourage "readers." Why did a master teacher like Albert White Hat insist on only two vowel sounds?

He attributes this to a state-wide consensus, back in 1982, where fluent speakers agreed to this system. He refers to meetings that were held where instructors agreed to these sounds.

If one were to, in the year 2016, think about how many more fluent speakers there were in 1982, any logical conclusion would be to agree with Albert. To say, yes, these making those decisions about the Lakota language, were fluent. They used the language in ways that we have forgotten today. They heard the sounds daily.

In my teaching, I am constantly questioning the sounds. In the academic year, every ten weeks, I look again at the pronunciation guide and am requiring students to repeat those sounds, over and over again.


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As Dakota, Lakota and Nakota speakers we focus on differences in the consonants; rarely do we ever question that we share in common, the vowels.

In teaching and learning, we need to listen to those who came before and follow their wise guidance, like Albert White Hat, who heard distinctly only two sounds for certain vowels. By keeping it simple, so it can be taught, as the elders wanted it taught.

(Delphine Red Shirt can be reached at redshirtphd@gmail.com)

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