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Mary Wilson, Tipiziwin Young, LaValla Moore, Melvin Hill and Francois Fouquerel, left to right, practice a conversation in Lakota at the Lakota Language Summer Institute at Sitting Bull College. Submitted photo

FORT YATES — A language can define and unite a community.

For many American Indian tribes, however, history nearly obliterated the use of their languages. Now there is a resurgence in learning those languages. It is taught in reservation schools and in some border community schools.

Finding fluent speakers who can teach the classes is sometimes difficult. The Lakota Language Summer Institute at Sitting Bull College is meant to bridge the gap between knowledge and teaching.

“Most Lakota teachers do not go to school or college to teach Lakota,” said Sunshine Carlow, one of the institute coordinators.

Seventy educators are participating in the three-week program that ends Friday. It is geared toward people at different proficiency levels with Lakota, a lanuage spoken by Upper Midwest Sioux tribes.

“Just because you are an English speaker doesn’t mean we can stick you in a classroom with Germans who do not know English and expect you to teach them English,” Carlow said.

The same is true of putting someone who knows Lakota into a classroom and expecting them to know how to teach other people the language, she said. The workshop is aimed at Lakota speakers of different skill levels and teaches them techniques for teaching the language. They also have a line of workbooks that use culturally relevant drawings and situations.

“It is context-based learning with real-life situations, so it is not vocabulary lists and rote conjugation of verbs,” said Wilhelm Meya, executive director of the Lakota Language Consortium.

Lessons are more likely to be conversational and based on everyday situations instead of what students would normally get out of a typical second language class. In typical second language classes, such as Spanish, students learn vocabulary words, such as items in a room or grocery items, and take a verb and write its different forms for different tenses and pronouns.

The language also keeps up with modern life. There are words in Lakota for MP3 player, laptop and cellphone. During an intensive instruction class at the institute, teacher Peter Hill, had participants answer whether or not they had items like books and pens.

The participants were encouraged to answer the ones in which they knew the word, then he went over the entire list. Later, he had the class introduce themselves to each other, shake hands, then ask if they had a particular item.

In some of the different classes, participants learned different techniques to get students involved and talking out loud in class, or more advanced students recorded public service messages in Lakota.

Although Lakota is the official language of the Standing Rock Tribe, business is primarily conducted in English, and at local businesses, most conversations are in English. Some people do speak in Lakota.

“Right now, the opportunity is there, but you have to seek it out,” to speak Lakota, Carlow said.

About 13 percent of the population on Standing Rock speaks Lakota or another American Indian language at home, according to 2011 Census data. This percent is unchanged from the 2000 Census, but with a population increase, this now accounts for about 970 people in 2011 compared to about 770 in 2000. Nearly a quarter of residents of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota speak Lakota.

For people learning Lakota, fluent speakers will talk more slowly so the new speaker can keep up. Carlow is learning Lakota with her family at home. She uses the workbooks that are used in the institute. For the first time this year, the institute has an evening session for the community. It has drawn 30 participants from on and off the reservation.

“As a community, we need to all start learning,” she said. “I didn’t feel I could learn my own language. There was always someone else we could look for to do it. We need to do it ourselves.”

Most Lakota teachers have taught for about 20 to 30 years, and are about to retire, and there needs to be another generation of teachers. Also, there are more fluent Lakota speakers among people 60 and older, than under 50, which makes it even more important for younger people to learn the that it can be carried to the next generation.

“The last five to eight years has been a real watershed in language awareness,” Meya said. “There has been more work and activism in last five years than last 50 years.”

Students also could benefit from learning Lakota in school, because learning a second language increases cognitive skills, Meya said. The benefits also extend to a sense of identity as well.

“It increases a student’s pride and self esteem when they can speak their heritage language well,” he said. “They’re not only told to be proud of their heritage, but now they are able to speak and begin to understand who they are. It has important social consequences.”

(Reach reporter Sara Kincaid at 250-8251 or