Google joins fight to save endangered First Nations languages in B.C.
A B.C. First Nations organization is playing a key role in a Google-backed effort to help preserve and revitalize languages on the brink of extinction.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a First Nations-run Crown corporation, will chair the advisory committee for the Endangered Languages Project. A creation of Google and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, the project launched on Wednesday (June 20) with a website aiming to document more than 3,000 languages at risk from around the world.
Tracey Herbert, executive director of FPCC, told the Georgia Straight by phone from Victoria that her organization has been working on the project with Google for about a year.
“It really gives us the visibility that we need to gain more support for the work that we’re doing,” Herbert said today (June 21) on National Aboriginal Day. “To have a company like Google basically give up a bunch of their technicians’ time to create this site on behalf of Endangered Languages really says a lot about them and also the recognition of the importance of endangered languages.”
Languages such as Halkomelem and Squamish each have a page on the site, which has room for metadata, video samples, and other resources. The site offers people interested in preserving languages a place to store and access research, share information, and connect with others.
“Documenting the 3,000+ languages that are on the verge of extinction (about half of all languages in the world) is an important step in preserving cultural diversity, honoring the knowledge of our elders and empowering our youth,” Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman, project managers for Endangered Languages, wrote in a post on Google’s company blog. “Technology can strengthen these efforts by helping people create high-quality recordings of their elders (often the last speakers of a language), connecting diaspora communities through social media and facilitating language learning.”
According to Herbert, the site provides a “template”, seeded with basic data from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Eastern Michigan University. FPCC plans to update the pages for B.C. First Nations languages with data about their status. She noted that adding videos and other information about each language is up to the communities.
“We’ll be encouraging language champions in B.C. to use the site and to put language data they feel comfortable sharing about themselves on the site and to share some of their best practices,” Herbert said. “The site will be connecting us globally to people that are working in indigenous language revitalization, so the sharing of best practices, creating networks will help us improve the work that we’re doing and allow us to share our successes as well.”
FPCC—formerly the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council—works to revitalize First Nations languages, arts, and culture in the province. On Monday (June 18), the council’s innovative indigenous-languages texting app, FirstVoices Chat, was released for the iPhone.
According to a 2010 report by the council, First Nations languages in B.C. are heading toward “imminent extinction” but can be saved if quick action is taken. The report noted that, with 32 languages and 59 dialects, the province is home to 60 percent of First Nations languages in Canada.
“Based on three variables for measuring language endangerment (speakers, usage and language resources), all of B.C. First Nations languages are severely endangered or nearly extinct,” the report stated. “Some are already sleeping.”
As Endangered Languages’ advisory committee chair, FPCC will take the lead on outreach and strategy for the project. Herbert commented that she is “really excited” about the project and looks forward to seeing what people add to the site in the coming years.
“I think over the next couple years, as more people add information, it will become more robust, and it will be sort of the go-to place to learn about language endangerment and to connect with other people,” Herbert said.