Difference Makers: Lydia Prince and Gabe Archie are preserving indigenous languages with an open source app

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      This weekly column features community-minded Vancouverites that are making a difference at a grassroots level.

      When Lydia Prince set out to become the first student in a web development bootcamp program geared to indigenous learners, she had no idea it would lead her to create a language revitalization tool with one of her peers. 

      Now, Prince and her cofounder, Gabe Archie, are building the open source app together, and plan on sharing it with indigenous communities across the country later this year.

      The program they completed together, called Bridging to Technology, was developed as a result of a partnership between Lighthouse Labs and the First Nations Technology Council, and aims to create access and opportunity for skills development in the tech sector for indigenous people.

      Prince, who is Carrier from the Tl’azt’en Nation on her father’s side and Cree on her mother’s side, grew up in Fort St. James in B.C.’s central interior. Archie, who wasn’t in Vancouver for an interview prior to the publication of this story, is Tsq’escenemc from the Shuswap Nation near Canim Lake, B.C.

      “I feel like it really opened a lot of doors for me,” Prince tells the Straight at a café on West Broadway. Prior to the program, she had a background in graphic design and administration.

      “With web development, I’m able to go in all these different directions, and it’s allowed me to meet really cool people like Gabe, who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

      Archie was the second student to enrol in the program, and had taken the first steps in creating a language app before meeting Prince. She says the two automatically gravitated toward each other because of their indigenous backgrounds, “something that naturally happens, because we’re very much about the community."

      Together, they are developing Goozih (pronounced ‘goo-zee’), a free, open source language revitalization tool that will soon be available for iOS devices.

      “In the Carrier language, Goozih means ‘to be nosy’. If you’re trying to find out about a language, you need to be nosy,” she says of the app’s name.

      “We wanted it to be easy to say, and memorable.”

      Prince says that since leaving her home community, engaging with the language she grew up with has been very challenging.

      “Growing up, I was surrounded by it, but I noticed that as soon as I moved away, I totally forgot it because I didn’t have anyone to speak with,” she says.

      “Now that the elders and the people that speak it fluently are dying, I feel like it’s not being used as much, and with all aboriginal communities right now, there is this race to record and document everything, so that we can preserve it. It’s the main reason we wanted to do this: to have recordings of our languages.”

      Prince recognizes that there are a rising number of initiatives and start-ups among indigenous communities to preserve languages, but she says some platforms aren’t very user-friendly. She and Archie have designed Goozih so that users will be able to navigate it with ease.

      “Basically, it works like dictionary.com, so you can type in an English word, and then you can choose from the languages that are available,” she says.

      Currently, the app can translate from English to one of two languages: Prince’s tongue, Dakelh, and Archie’s, Secwepemctsín, but she says that the two have enabled a feature on the app so that users can apply to become administrators for different languages.

      This would give them the ability to add, record, and edit words in the app’s database.

      “It gives users a chance to actually build it,” she says. “We want it to be very accessible and malleable, because it’s really a tool for them to use.”

      Prince says they’ve already received some interest from aboriginal groups that might be interested in becoming admins and adding their own languages, but the two are keen to perfect it before opening it up to users.

      For Prince, both the app that she’s helped create and the program that helped her get there offer tech-based ways to help preserve indigenous culture, while connecting people from remote indigenous communities to resources they might not have had had access to before.

      “[Programs like Bridging to Technology] are important because aboriginal people have a lot to offer,” she says.

      “The internet is sometimes the only connection that remote indigenous communities have to the world, and with some of these small communities, it is really hard to travel back and forth between the city and your community to use these tools. We wanted to make it accessible, so you don’t have to leave your home to learn your language.”

      In the future, Prince and Archie hope to add special features to the app that will allow users to play games or listen to stories.

      “That’s one of the main ways that people learn their language traditionally, through stories,” Prince adds.

      “Being able to give people this tool—and I say people, because really this app is not limited to indigenous people—it allows them to gain knowledge, and that’s important.”

      Know someone doing important work in your community? Message Amanda Siebert here