Of the 34 languages spoken by B.C.’s Indigenous peoples, many have only a handful of individuals who are fluent. Adolescents are growing up without learning the tongues of their heritage and have been unable to access resources to educate themselves. Without successfully engaging new speakers, First Nations’ rich linguistic customs will become further endangered.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council aims to change that. As a provincial Crown corporation that supports the revitalization of language, arts, and culture in B.C.’s 203 First Nations communities, the organization uses a number of approaches to help encourage participation in traditional practices. One of those is technology.
In 2016, the council launched the FirstVoices Keyboard app. Recognizing that most communication is now done online, it created more than 100 different keypads that can be easily accessed on an iPhone or Android. The app, which re-creates the unique letters and characters of First Nations languages, lets individuals chat with the spelling and grammar of their culture.
“We created it because we had such a huge response from youth,” Shaylene Boechler, outreach manager at the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Brentwood Bay, near Victoria. “They wanted to be able to text in their language, and that was the driving force. All the resources we develop are informed by the needs of the communities. I don’t know if it would have been something we would have taken on right away if there hadn’t been so much feedback from phone calls and visits. Now it’s our most popular resource and has more than 41,000 downloads.”
The FirstVoices Keyboard app draws on data gathered by its parent project: the FirstVoices.com website. The page is an online archiving tool and offers funding for First Nations to collect language records and upload them to the central database. Communities have been depositing their dialects for years and have full autonomy to decide what content goes into their archives.
Using that central repository as a foundation, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council has created a number of other stand-alone digital projects to aid in language-learning.
“We initially released dictionary apps back in 2011,” Boechler says. “They allowed people to access words and phrases and actually listen to someone speaking and pronouncing the entries. We relaunched them more recently, and they represent 13 First Nations languages. They’re built on open-source software and now have much more refined search functions.
“As well as that, we have the FirstVoices Language Tutor and FirstVoices Kids,” she continues. “The kids’ version is targeted towards prereaders, so there’s a lot more audio and visual in that section of the archives. The Tutor is our language-learning platform that uses the data to create lessons and teach adults their mother tongue. We’re finding ways for all the recordings in the repository to be repurposed in different ways.”
In Boechler’s view, combining culture with technology is the best way to preserve First Nations languages.
“One of the key benefits of operating digitally is the access,” she says. “Even if you’re not living in your community but you still want to learn about your language and culture, you have a way of connecting back. All the apps we develop are free to download.”
Boechler believes that the accessibility of the software acts as a catalyst for underconfident speakers. By allowing an entry point for those who don’t feel comfortable enough to jump into a mentor-apprentice immersion program—a project where individuals work with a fluent speaker—the apps offer a safe space for people to begin to engage with their culture.
“In order for a language to continue to thrive, we need to see it used in schools but also in people’s personal lives,” Boechler says. “Technology influences everyone, especially younger generations. Putting language into their domains—on phones and devices—is really important.”
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