LAWTON — Learning to speak the Comanche language is different from trying to learn, say, German or Spanish.
When a student studying Spanish runs across an unfamiliar word, the dictionary or a more experienced speaker can be of help.
“That's a little bit more difficult with an endangered language,” said Todd McDaniels, a professor at Comanche Nation College in Lawton.
Although learning the language is still a challenge, students in the college's language program benefit from computer-based language programs McDaniels developed. And thanks to a state broadband initiative, college officials hope to broaden the program's audience.
The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger classifies the Comanche language as severely endangered, with only about 100 speakers. Other figures place the number even lower — the University of Texas at Arlington estimates the language has 20 or fewer fluent speakers.
The college has offered Comanche courses for several years as a way to keep the language alive. But the problem with teaching a language like Comanche from a book, McDaniels said, is that its alphabet is a recent addition — the tribe only adopted the alphabet in 1994. Before that, McDaniels said, the language was entirely oral, meaning teaching Comanche from a book is something of a break with tradition.
“I was aware of the feeling among a lot of Comanches that the language is traditionally an oral language,” he said. “The alphabet is new.”
McDaniels said he wanted to develop a program that wasn't as dependent on writing, but would place a greater emphasis on speaking and understanding.
That's difficult to do with words on paper, he said, because students can't get a sense of how the language sounds from written words.
So in 2009, McDaniels began developing a computer-based program to teach students the language.
Using funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Administration for Native Americans, McDaniels brought together four Comanche speakers and developed a curriculum.
Today, the computer-based teaching modules are used to supplement classroom instruction, McDaniels said — they play the same role textbooks did in the past. The programs don't require students to translate the language to English, he said, but to choose the correct answer from a group of choices.
For example, he said, the program may display a sentence with two photos — one of an armadillo crossing a road, and another of an armadillo digging a hole, he said.
The student would select which photo matches the sentence on the screen.
In the coming months, college officials hope to put portions of the lessons on the college library's website, said Paula Lemons, the college's information technology director. That effort is facilitated in part by the Oklahoma Community Anchor Network, an initiative that seeks to bring broadband access to rural Oklahoma.
The project is a joint venture by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education's OneNet division, which serves as the state's telecommunications network for government and education.
The language project is funded through a $74 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the agency's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.
The three agencies are providing broadband Internet access to 32 “community anchors” in underserved areas across the state, said Von Royal, executive director of OneNet. Included in those sites are college campuses and tribal offices.
The program just brought fiber optics to the college, which boosted the college's online capabilities, Lemons said.
“That kind of opened the door to limitless possibilities,” she said.
College officials hope to have portions of the computer-based lessons online by summer.
Keeping the Comanche language alive is an important piece of preserving the tribe's culture, McDaniels said.
Each language carries its own nuance, he said, and when one is lost, things as simple as jokes and stories may go along with it.
Although languages can be recorded in the written word, they only continue to live when people continue to speak them.
That's particularly true of Comanche, whose written form is less culturally important than its spoken form.
“You see the words on the page, but how is it pronounced?” he said. “What does it sound like?”