Groundbreaking FirstVoices Chat app set to bring texting in First Nations languages to iPhone
An innovative mobile application that will allow First Nations people to send text messages written in indigenous languages is being unveiled in Vancouver.
Developed by the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council, FirstVoices Chat won’t be launched until March 31. But the free app for the iPhone and iPod Touch is being demonstrated today (February 24) at the Information and Communication Technology Summit, which is taking place at the Coast Plaza Hotel until Saturday (February 25).
Peter Brand, FirstVoices manager for the FPHLCC—a provincial Crown corporation—told the Georgia Straight the app harnesses online social networking and contains “groundbreaking technology”.
“We’ve had First Nations youth clamouring for this for a couple years now,” Brand said by phone from the FPHLCC office in Brentwood Bay. “Ever since cellphones have been used by youth to text, First Nations youth have wanted to be able to text in language, just as an extension of their everyday literacy skills.”
According to Brand, after downloading FirstVoices Chat, users will be asked to log in to Facebook or Google Talk, and then pick a language, such as Halq’eméylem, which is spoken by members of the Sto:lo Nation in the Fraser Valley. Then they’ll be able to press a button to replace the touchscreen QWERTY keypad with a First Nations language keypad, complete with all the necessary characters.
Brand said that FirstVoices Chat is designed to work with most First Nations languages across B.C., the rest of Canada, and even the United States that use Roman-based characters.
“The goal is to provide First Nations British Columbians and, in fact, First Nations across the continent with the same access to literacy tools that you and I expect as speakers of mainstream languages,” Brand explained.
At the ICT Summit, Lieutenant Governor Steven Point and his wife, Gwendolyn Point, are conducting a midday demonstration of the app using Halq’eméylem.
Brand noted that the First Nations Technology Council, which is putting on the conference, largely funded the development of FirstVoices Chat.
FNTC executive director Norm Leech told the Straight that the app is perfect for “everyday use” and represents an important development in efforts to save endangered First Nations languages.
“It shows that technology can enable the preservation of ancient cultures and languages, and that’s a valuable tool,” Leech said at the hotel ahead of the conference.
According to a 2010 FPHLCC report, 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.”
The FirstVoices Chat demonstration comes the day after the FPHLCC announced it is seeking new sources of funding, as the B.C. government has informed the Crown corporation of “unexpected decreases” in contributions from the First Citizens Fund and New Relationship Trust for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The funding cuts constitute a $650,000 revenue loss for next year, according to a February 23 FPHLCC news release.
The FPHLCC is also in the midst of rolling out 12 FirstVoices mobile apps that each offer a dictionary and phrase collection for a single B.C. First Nations language. The first two iPhone and iPod Touch apps, for Halq’eméylem and SENĆOŦEN, were launched in December 2010.
Since then, the FPHLCC has released dictionary apps for Ehattesaht, Hlgaagilda Xaayda Kil (Skidegate Haida), Kwak’wala, and Nisga’a, and more are in the works.
Brand noted the dictionary apps are aimed at First Nations youth who want to become more proficient in their indigenous language, but can be useful to businesspeople, politicians, and anyone else who’s interested. According to him, the apps have sparked interest from as far away as Australia in the FPHLCC’s work to preserve and revitalize First Nations languages.
“The focus of this organization is to be proactive in the revitalization of these languages, remembering that our history here in Canada is that these languages were, in some cases, literally beaten out of First Nations youth in residential schools,” Brand said. “First Nations people tell us over and over again that they find strength in their culture coming directly from the ability to use their language in everyday life.”