Speaking Tsalagi: Preserving The Cherokee Language
Fresh out of the University of Texas at Austin with a Ph.D. in
theoretical linguistics, Bill Pulte found a job that would shape
his academic career for the next 38 years. He became project
director for the Cherokee Bilingual Education Program, in Tahlequah
Oklahoma, headquarters of the 50,000-member Cherokee
Nation. It was one of the first projects funded by the U.S. Bilingual
Education Act of 1971.
His two years in Tahlequah launched a
career dedicated to preserving the Cherokee
language and developing the best way
to teach all children a second language.
“Forty years ago, most of the Cherokee
children in the Tahlequah schools spoke
Cherokee better than English,” says Pulte,
associate professor of education, Annette
Caldwell Simmons School of Education
and Human Development. “However, the
classes were conducted only in English. A dictionary was one of
the first things that teachers needed to create a bilingual program.”
With his co-author, Cherokee tribal linguist Durbin Feeling,
Pulte edited The Cherokee-English Dictionary and the Outline of
Cherokee Grammar (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, 1975).
Research published in the January 1982 issue of the Journal of
American Indian Language found that over a five-year period, the
children who participated in the Cherokee Bilingual Education Program
scored significantly higher in reading and mathematics than
children in the Cherokee Nation who were taught only in English.
“My own thinking about how children learn their first and second
languages crystallized after my years in Tahlequah,” Pulte
says. “It is important for children to receive school instruction in
their native language. Research shows it takes five to six years for
a student to master a new language.”
Pulte joined the Department of Anthropology in Dedman College
in 1973 as a linguistic anthropologist and in 1975 became
head of SMU’s bilingual education program focusing on English
and Spanish. In 1977 he received the first of what has eventually
totaled $8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education
to certify teachers in bilingual education and to provide advanced
training to certified teachers.
Since then, Pulte has directed
bilingual education training at SMU for more than 800 teachers.
The Texas Association for Bilingual Education presented him the
Higher Education Honoree Award in 2005 for his efforts in the field.
Today Pulte continues his work with the Cherokee language.
He and Feeling are transcribing and translating 25 Cherokee narratives
including diaries, legal documents and legends for a new
book. Their dictionary and grammar guide are still in use as the Cherokee language faces a new challenge. A Cherokee Nation survey
in 2002 found no fluent Cherokee speakers under the age of
40 and predicted the language could become extinct in one to two
generations. Pulte and Feeling’s work has become the core resource
for the new Cherokee language revitalization project.
“In the opinion of some linguists, 90 percent of the world’s 2,000
languages will die out by 2100 because of urbanization and globalization,”
Pulte says. “It’s important to learn what these languages
have in common because that tells us something about the mind.
The study of languages is very much linked to neuroscience and
For more information: smu.edu/education/teachereducation/ faculty/pultebill.asp