October 24, 2012 1:02 pm
Updated: March 12, 2013 12:15 pm

Aboriginal languages finding new life with technology


TORONTO – Census data released today shows a slight decline in aboriginal speakers in Canada, but efforts are being made to revitalize aboriginal languages.

One innovative project is FirstVoices Chat, a free texting app with keyboards in over one hundred Indigenous languages. It’s available for use on Facebook Chat and more recently as an iPhone, iPad and iTouch app.

“It’s important for our youth to know that we can adapt inside our language and still have a history,” said Pena Elliott of the Tsartlip First Nation in British Columbia. “To find out who we are as people by using modern technology as a tool to teach.”

“As the technology has evolved we’ve tried to keep pace,” said Peter Brand, the coordinator at FirstVoices. “The younger generation is tech savvy so it was natural fit that they look for tech tools to assist in their drive to reacquire languages.”

Launched in 2003 by B.C.’s First Peoples’ Cultural Council, FirstVoices started as an online database to provide tools for communities to upload language data, texts, videos and audio to create online dictionaries.

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Then people from B.C.’s different aboriginal communities began approaching Brand asking if they could have a mobile app in their language. Every First Nation language has a different alphabet, so FirstVoices had to make a different keyboard for each one.

The result of all the work was the Chat app, which is available in over 100 aboriginal languages – every Canadian one and others in places like Australia and the U.S. too. So far, the app has been downloaded about 7,000 times.

“When going through middle school you know you’re First Nation,” Elliott said. “But what is it that actually makes you First Nation, what is it that makes you feel good about who you are?”

More and more now, Elliott’s answer to that question is language. In his youth Elliott felt ashamed of his aboriginal language, Sentoten. He spoke English. It’s one of the effects of the residential school legacy, he thinks.

Elliott’s late grandfather developed the Sentoten alphabet. Now, decades later, Elliott is doing his part to revive and teach Sentoten by working as a language apprentice at a local tribal school.

“Our world’s changing and we can’t go backwards,” Elliott said. “We have to adapt and we have to take advantage of the technology that’s out there.”

Young vs. Old

“What we’re seeing from our work is there’s resurgence in interest in language within the 20-somethings,” Brand said.

For a long time there was a stigma associated with learning your language as a result of residential schooling, Brand said. People in the 30 to 50 age bracket lost out on the opportunity to learn the language from their parents, and in turn failed to teach it to their kids, Brand said.

“The age of the few remaining speakers are 60 and up, and they’re now dying and taking language with them,” Brand said. “It’s a race against time – globally.”

The loss of old languages worldwide led Google to help launch the Endangered Languages Project earlier this year. The project is an online resource that allows for the sharing of data and strategies being used across the World to strengthen and document the endangered languages.

The administration of the site was just handed over to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council a few weeks ago. Brand and council director Tracey Herbert also sit on the advisory committee.

Yawenda project

In Quebec City the Wendake First Nation has started from scratch. In 2007, with federal funding, they launched the Yawenda project in hopes of reviving the Huron-Wendat language, which hadn’t been spoken since the late 19th century.

“It’s to give them a basis in their language to reconnect with ancestors,” said Dr. Louis-Jacques Dorais, a retired professor at Laval University and researcher for the Yawenda project. “When we say things in our language we feel we are thinking like our ancestors did.”

In 2008 the Wendake began by training a group of people to learn the language, who could then teach it to others. In 2010, they started teaching it to adults at night classes, in 2011 to kindergarten children through grade 2; this year it was extended to children in grades three to six.

Nobody on the reserve is fluent in the language yet. “The aim isn’t to have people speak language fluently,” Dorais said. By teaching basic greetings and other common words and phrases, “It’s a way of reinforcing the identity and reinforcing their claims by showing and proving they are different from the majority of the population.”

Financial Challenges

In B.C. there’s a series of programs that have been set up through the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Besides FirstVoices, language camps, a mentorship program, and language emersion in schools are all efforts that board chair Lorna Williams points to as successes.

“I think it’s through those programs and others we’ll eventually change the statistics,” Williams said. “If you notice any growth and change it’s because of efforts of people in communities.”

B.C. is “fortunate” to have provincial support, Williams said. A long-term solution to revitalizing languages requires federal financial support, Williams said.

Brand said FirstVoices best language dictionaries have about five to six-thousand entries. A complete dictionary would have anywhere from 20 to 30-thousand words. “The missing link is the funding,” Brand said. “To do archiving of that intense level would be two to three years of work for one language.”

The Wendake First Nation’s federal funding for the Yawenda project expired this year. The local council is now funding the project for the next two years while they look for other sources of funding.

In Saskatchewan, Cree is the second-most spoken language, ahead of French. “So where is the money to help Cree-speaking communities?” said Arok Wolvengrey, a professor at First Nations University in Regina, Sask.

Any funding would start by having the federal government provide protected heritage language status to all aboriginal languages,” Wolvengrey said. “There’s only so much you can do in a school program,” he said. Money would allow for signage in the appropriate aboriginal language, in addition to English and French, Wolvengrey said.

“I certainly hope we see some kind of change in areas and attitudes that make success stories people are so desperate to find become more common,” Wolvengrey said.


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