Stepping Up to the Work of It


After a high-energy first day at Sitting Bull College, the second day of the Lakota Summer Institute, Crow Summer Institute and MHA Summer Institute is the day when everyone comes down to Earth and realizes that this language-learning thing is work.

After a day split into two classes, the Lakota Phonology class of 40 people decided to recombine into one super-sized class, co-taught by two instructors, Michael Moore and Armik Mirzayan.

Mirzayan, who teaches a Lakota-language education curriculum at the University of South Dakota, then seesaws to the other extreme.  As an instructor for the MHA Summer Institute, he turns his linguistic skills towards Arikara – which means sitting with just one teacher from the MHA Nation, cross-checking notes on spelling and word structure.

Armik Mirzayan

Armik Mirzayan


“Whereas Lakota uses more sounds than English does, Arikara has less,” Mirzayan said, “just 12 consonants and some vowels.” He said the consonants might be whispered rather than fully voiced, and verbs are so important, they may be 10 to 15 syllables long. “Now we have to figure out how she can explain all of this to her students,” he said.

Another instructor doing double-duty around Sitting Bull College this week is linguist John Boyle, who is teaching at the Crow Summer Institute, and is also working with Hidatsa language teachers at the MHA Summer Institute.  He noted that the positive, can-do atmosphere generated at Sitting Bull and LSI has allowed Hidatsa teachers to explore the importance of a standardized spelling system.  “They have had a lot of variation in spelling, using English letters,” Boyle said, “but now we are talking about the advantages of sticking to the Hidatsa alphabet and not filtering the language through English.”

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