Trio from ’98 Support Endangered Language Preservation

May 25, 2023 / Andrea Wenger

A bit of a long-term “bromance” among three members of the Eastern Mennonite High School class of ‘98 sets a lighthearted tone for some serious work at Rosetta Stone in downtown Harrisonburg these days.

During high school, Dan Steller and David Wingfield were known for antics up front, especially during chapel. Peter was on the quieter side. Now, the three are part of a team racing against time to help preserve the endangered Ojibwe language.

The ’98 grads’ work is guided by members of the Mille Lacs Band of the Ojibwe Nation, a federally recognized American Indian tribal government whose members have lived for many generations in the east-central Minnesota region.

Endangered Language Program
Ojibwe tribal leaders invited Rosetta Stone to team up with the Aanjibimaadizing Language Preservation Initiative in 20??. Revitalization is needed now, they say, as the few remaining Native speakers are aging.

Language loss is due in large part to the forced assimilation of indigenous children into the dominant white culture through the federal Indian boarding school program between 1819 and 1969. The system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states (or then territories), according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. [Mennonites were complicit in the practice, running three boarding schools and a day school in Kykotsmovi, Arizona.

The schools often forbade children to speak the language of their parents and ancestors with cruel consequences for those who disobeyed. Today, some Tribal elders recall those childhood traumas and are reconnecting with their language through Rosetta Stone learning tools.

Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji (Minn.) State University. Photo courtesy Rosetta Stone

Photo courtesy Rosetta Stone

Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji (Minn.) State University highlights the strengths of the Rosetta Stone program in this video, where you catch glimpses of Dan and David at work. He notes that all aspects of the curriculum are developed by Ojibwe speakers; the Rosetta Stone team develops accompanying videos that mimic immersion in a home or other natural environment, and incorporates artificial intelligence to correct pronunciation and grammar in real time.

“When you help to preserve a language,” Professor Treuer says, “you help to preserve a culture.” [Read a Minnesota Star Tribune 2020 feature about Treuer’s life’s work with extensive detail about the Ojibwe people and language.

The Ojibwe language learning lessons went live on Rosetta Stone in May of 2022, and several hundred band members are using the tools. Currently, levels I-III are available, and contracts are in place through completion of level VI.

“All told, when it’s done, I think Rosetta Stone will be a historic tool… to go across time and space and preserve and teach.” It’s not a “silver bullet,” Treuer says, “but it will help to teach Ojibwe speakers for hundreds of years to come.”

The EMHS Trio
In 1998, Peter, Dan and David could not have imagined that 25 years after graduation they would be horsing around the Rosetta Stone lobby or visiting with EMHS administrators at a nearby picnic table, reflecting on their shared professional endeavors.

Peter’s father, John, helped to found Rosetta Stone — the language-learning software initially sold in CD-rom format in big yellow boxes — in the early 1990s. Peter remembers his first paying job scrubbing toilets for the company. After earning a degree in computer science from Goshen College in 2002, he returned to the company, and has been Lead Developer since 20??.

After high school, Dan and David headed to Indiana Wesleyan University, two hours south of Goshen, to pursue interests in film and photography, with David also pursuing religious studies.

David returned to the ‘burg in 2005 to help renovate Peter’s family homestead, which Peter was preparing to move into with his new wife, Bethany. As that project drew to a close, Peter persuaded David to apply as a photographer at Rosetta Stone.

David, now married to Havilah (IS THAT TRUE?), was hired and quickly moved into management and producer roles. He currently serves as Visual Creation Lead, a role he describes as “helping to guide the creation of photos and videos that seek to engage the learner through quality and humor.”

Peter and David soon roped in Dan, who was living in LA after graduating from the Los Angeles Film Center. Dan joined the Rosetta Stone team on contract from a distance, and relocated to Harrisonbrug in 2010 with his wife, Bridget, also a member of the class of ‘98. He’s been a Senior Creative Producer since 2013.

Looking back, it’s a bit surreal to find themselves middle aged and, for Dan and Peter, parents of EMS kids themselves.“It’s a great community to be a part of,” says Dan, referring to the school and area. “DIDN”T CATCH AN EXACT QUOTE HERE” …

In addition to developing language learning tools, the Rosetta Stone team has been gathering audio of Ojibwe elders, using a portable audio booth that David and Dan created. The booth is located in? Moves around where? Recordings are house ?where and provide important historical documentation, as native speaker numbers are declining rapidly and now number about 50, they say.

EMS celebrates alumni stories to hear each others’ journeys since high school and to be inspired by lives of service, professional contributions, Christian commitment, and community engagement. Peter Fairfield, Dan Steller and David Wingfield will be recognized and celebrated as part of Homecoming 2023 activities, Oct. 20 and 21.

Check out some more photos from this story

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