Writing and the Cherokee Dictionary Project – Part 1

Osiyo. Dohiju? Welcome back.

TLDR; Each chapter of study starts with a story that will be for reading and listening comprehension that should also be a video. The learner will get very, very brief grammar for the chapter and maybe a reminder to previous grammar they’ve learned or a pointer to where they’ll learn about more related grammar. There will be pictorial studies where the learner will read grammatically correct sentences using pictures. And finally, one or two stories for reading and listening comprehension via video that will include much of what they’ve already learned.

One of the issues I’ve had learning Cherokee over the years is access to materials for learning. If I want to continue learning languages like German, Russian, Arabic, etc there are tons and tons of resources for listening comprehension, reading, tv shows like Friends dubbed in those languages. In Cherokee, there is not.

With my work in this language I’ve spent a lot of time lately working on content. I have a goal to be able to converse in Cherokee by the time the next language symposium comes around. We have added some reading and listening work that links to the Cherokee Phoenix site to practice with. These are articles translated and then read aloud by a speaker. They are ok for listening comprehension. You can see the article in English and compare to Cherokee.

My issue with this is that it’s a more advanced reading. It’s not intended for the beginner to read. You could translate the article word by word (or attempt to if you don’t know anything about the affixes) and get a better idea about the words. You might have some luck.

I have a giant binder containing 4 years, or more, of research regarding the language, grammar, etc. I have many hundreds of PDFs for learning Cherokee in an immersion setting as well as many out-of-print books. These all teach you in the traditional language learning way – you read some dialog, look up words you don’t know, introduction of intense grammar, and move on. They are difficult as hell to study.

I am a huge fan of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, or TPRS. This system is basically learning a small story in a target language using gestures, questions to students, and much, much, more. My favorite Russian book used a technique like this. You would have a dialog, a basic-basic-basic set of grammar rules for the chapter, and several stories including vocabulary of the current chapter and then stories using a lot of vocabulary from previous chapters. Then would ask questions about the stories in the target language with answers in the end of the book.

TPRS is a great way to learn. If you watch a video or speaker hold up a coffee cup then say ‘kawi’ you can infer they’re asking you if you want coffee. If they hold up sugar and say something in the target language you can infer they want to know if you want sugar. This is incredibly powerful to learning a language from the beginning. I’m certainly not saying those resources aren’t available in Cherokee. They might be. I’m saying I don’t have them. The biggest difference between “normal” language books and TPRS is popup grammar. You don’t need to know all of the grammar to read something in the target language. Stephen Krashen talks about this at length, including all of his discussions on comprehensible input – which TPRS is most definitely. Here is a quick overview of TPRS by Steve Kaufmann. I won’t bore you with the other videos by Stephen Krashen and Steve Kaufmann – this gives a great overview and is pretty much all you need to know for now. Here‘s another video I hadn’t seen before now that Steve Kaufmann explains very much what I’m doing. High frequency words in stories that the user learns as they go. The ability to look up those words immediately instead of looking up in a dictionary. And here is another one I picked up this morning from Steve. Fortunately, there is a dictionary available not far from what I’m doing.

To this end, I need to create my own study materials in order to get up to speed, as it were. When I’ve tackled this issue in the past I’ve started the traditional route with the lessons I’ve created. I’m not doing that this time. I have a theory about language. I entitle it the 80-20-500 rule. It’s basically, 80% of the language can be learned in 20 lessons with 500-1000 words. This is not 500 individually conjugated words. Meaning, you wouldn’t count “I have” “you have” “he/she/it has” as three words. They are one word with three conjugations. Some language learners consider them as three different words in other languages. If I said there were 19000 entries in the CED online that means that there are actually 19000 rows in the database. Each entry may contain 5 verb forms, maybe a plural or two, maybe each verb form contains two “spellings.” These I do consider different words for the purposes of the database. For the purposes of learning the language I’m going to consider each root of a word as one word. Then each conjugation is a variation of the root word. And that’s only for learning and not referring to the database. How you reference learning a language is up to you. Most books I have refer to one word being “to have” and then each conjugation is a conjugation of each word not a new word.

Let’s start with my approach. I have so much material I can pull phrases and conjugations from them. I can look up grammar in the grammar guide. I can do a lot with the material I have. I am not going to do that, exactly. My approach is to write a story that may contain dialog then have it translated in one dialect. Popup grammar will tell briefly the difference between this dialect and the other dialect. As well, popup grammar will mention elements such as a specific verb conjugation mentioned and meaning, or clitics, or whatever else might be apropos. In this way, the reader won’t get distracted by morphemes, etc. They’ll get the story the way it is and learn that. Later they’ll advance the language building on this small set of knowledge. No in-depth explanations that can be found in the grammar guide. No detailed elements distracting a learner from learning about this story.

Exercises start with listening to the story in the target language several times to get accustomed to it. There is a translation on an opposite page like Assimil does. In this way, the reader can cover that page and if they get stuck on a particular line they can look on the opposite page and get the translation and maybe even reference words if they’re out of order such as when the grammar is in a different order than the native language. Since this dialog will either be audio, or preferably video, YouTube has a variable audio listening. So the learner can slow down the recordings to listen a little more at their speed then listen at normal speed in order to pick up the listening comprehension portion better. They will listen to this part a few times before reading the material so they can get familiar with words and phrases they hear. They may not know what is going on, but the dialog won’t be so foreign to them that when they get to the reading and listening portion they can’t follow along.

Next, the user will learn a little grammar. As I said it could be what the ending -ju, -s, etc mean when you see them on a word. One sentence, maybe two, that drops a quick knowledge bomb on the learner. Anything more than the one or two sentences should reference something else for more learning if the user wants. However, they should trust they’ll learn more about this in later chapters. A link to later chapters and the in-depth part should be provided if applicable. Some people like to learn a lot to begin with. I don’t want to hamper that. I want to get someone reading and listening to as much comprehensible input as they can get then come back and do grammar exercises.

In the same chapters the learner will get pictorial reading. That means, as much as possible the learner will get information via pictures in the grammatical structure of the language. So, if the story is about /one brown horse standing/ as is the case in Harry Oosahwee’s book. Then the user will see a sentence represented by pictures in grammatical order. The number 1. A brown splotch. A horse. A pictograph of the word standing. When the user reads this they won’t have words to read. They’ll have pictures to remember what the words are to read to themselves. All words they’ve learned so far. Some words are more difficult to represent this way, however, most words can be represented in some manner by common gestures, street signs, color splotches, etc. Again, 80-20-500, so we’re not attempting to show a word that means “ridiculous.” We would write ridiculous in the native language if there’s no pictorial representation.

Finally, each chapter will contain some new stories containing the vocabulary only from this chapter. That means the words will form new sentences. They could be as simple as: /That is my house/ or /Where is your house?/ Or a full story that might start like this /John is walking his dog down the street when he encounters Mary walking/. The next story will include as much vocabulary and grammar as the user has learned so far. Maybe even a story with pictures so the user can substitute words. This section is more complicated, however, when it comes together it’ll make more sense. For example, maybe we’re talking about John walking his dog and meeting Mary. We may substitute images for John or Mary or the dog in the sentences because the reader knows these words by now. The next story will be the same story but will be completely in the target language and the learner can reference the pictorial story to glean any info. The pictorial story isn’t set in stone and the reason is because of the next section.

In addition to the reader portion will be a video of some scene that was given in the opening story of the chapter. This will be probably the cheapest of scenes, probably badly filmed so I can get through the chapters. So, the learner will hear the narration of the story as it unfolds. That means “John is walking his dog down the street when he encounters Mary walking” will be read by a narrator. The dialog will still be read by the individual actors in the scene. In this way, the learner can still follow along because they’ve got the reader. They can then listen to the story and read along. Or they can watch the scene and pick out what they know from the story because of the gesturing, signs, and filmmaking like focusing on a particular person with insets, cutaways, etc.

To begin with, I’m not going to have the final video sections complete. I can record dialog for the other sections or even this section for my own use. Later, I will have native speakers read the scenes so the listener/learner can get the actual pronunciation. I’m not worried about that at the moment because this is just for me. I’m working to acquire the language as fast as possible.

What’s the next part? Well, I have set up my own way to create these chapters and display them on a web page so I can read in the target language with matching sentence numbers so the native language will show a translation. The learner is able to click a link and show or hide the phonetic or latin reading of the syllabary. The learner is also able to do this with the target language and the popup grammar sections. In this way, the learner can read the stories and the accompanying materials the way I intend for the chapter and have popup grammar that is taught later in the chapter or has been taught but there’s a refresher and not break their study cycle. This will make more sense when I show the pages I’ve created.

This way also means I script my stories in fountain.io which I talked about in a previous blog entry here. Using this technique I can visualize the entire set of exchanges. I can write something that is appealing to me to want to watch or even read that gives my mind free reign to learn the story and it’s not all dry dialog that you would normally find. I can introduce all manner of every day speech and give the popup grammar, the sections to improve that learning, and then another scene that the user will be able to watch. Ideally, both stories, the one at the beginning and the one end, would be video so the learner can follow along. Since the first story is really about this chapter with some previous vocabulary, it will be mostly new content. The second story will contain a lot of previous vocabulary and grammar from other chapters. The goal isn’t to introduce one thing once five chapters before and then suddenly show it again. The goal is to introduce something that they’ll use repeatedly in following chapters.

Because I will be learning the language better I will write the scripts in English, my native language, and have them translated into Cherokee. Scripts will then be published in English and Cherokee for readers. There will be no English in dialogs unless the characters are asking how to say something in Cherokee.

This post has gone on a bit long. What I’m going to do now, is take the chapter I’ve been working on and make it complete in the manner I’ve described above. Then the next post will go through that chapter and maybe help better visualize what I am working towards.

My testing of myself will be ok. My goal is to have my kids try it and see what feedback I get from them as to how well they’ve learned what’s going on.

That’s it for now. Until next time. Dodadagohvi.

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