UBC PhD candidate explores how social media can revive Indigenous languages

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      Although the use of Indigenous languages has sharply declined during the past century, UBC PhD candidate Amber Shilling doesn’t like to say that they’re dying. Instead, she suggests, they’re sleeping.

      Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, Shilling was dislocated from her Anishinaabe heritage. Although she lived more than 2,500 kilometres from its biggest concentration of speakers, she was keen to connect with her culture and learn her ancestral tongue of Anishinaabemowin. Finding someone to practise with was difficult, however, so Shilling turned to the Internet. There, she found a host of language-learning apps and websites that she failed to find particularly engaging.

      “My background is in education, so while I acknowledge that I might be a little more critical than the average person, I found it lacking,” she tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “I think that’s where I really started thinking about seeing how work that I could do might help influence policy, design, and implementation that really create more impact. It’s important that it’s accessible to the people who are seeking it out.…As I was looking at these types of things, I thought: ‘Well, if I pursue a doctorate, I might be able to get a seat at the table where these types of policy and design conversations are happening.’ ”

      Shilling’s research, which is being presented at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences at UBC, focuses on the ways that urban Indigenous youths are using technology to connect to their languages, cultures, and identities. Her technique is one that is often overlooked by policymakers: listening to young people talk about their experiences. Using traditional Aboriginal practices like sharing circles to help facilitate dialogue, the academic dug into which resources were helpful for language-learning and how people aged 18 to 35 were using them. Unsurprisingly, given how long academic work can take to be published, the existing understanding of Indigenous language-learning tools was significantly out-of-date.

      “Some of the literature is still talking about which CD-ROM or recordings or websites are most valuable,” she says. “My computer doesn’t even take CDs or DVDs anymore.”

      Instead, Shilling reveals, the most valuable resource for young people learning Indigenous languages was social media.

      “There was a great deal of context for them in videos that they struggled [with getting] from an app,” she says. “When they could watch videos through social media, they could access it at the time they wanted to; they could pause and rewind; and they really liked the ability to take their time with the learning. They particularly liked that they could hear the pronunciation and that they were able to feel connected. I think that’s one of the things that the literature on second-language learning and language revitalization hasn’t acknowledged yet: that even if a video is recorded by someone sitting at a kitchen table, when the youths were watching that video, they said it felt like they were also sitting at that table.”

      Shilling’s research comes at an important time. The most recent census, published in 2016, revealed that the proportion of Aboriginal-language speakers who acquired the tongue as a second language increased from 18 percent to 26 percent during 10 years. Similarly, the number of people who could speak an Aboriginal language well enough to conduct a conversation rose by eight percent.

      Her focus also matches a number of recommendations made in the Final Report of the National Enquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released on June 3, which details ways to ensure that Aboriginal families and communities are afforded the same respect and rights of their non-Indigenous counterparts. The document suggests, among other important statements, that governments must legislate Indigenous tongues in their respective territories as official languages, and that funds must be made available to Indigenous people to revitalize and restore their cultures and languages. 

      In Shilling’s view, it’s vital that the government and policymakers consider how to work with young people to provide the best resources for language-learning.

      “I would say that one of the most important things we could do…is to think about how we can meaningfully engage youth,” she says. “When they become part of the process [of designing language-learning platforms], they become part of the community, and we are better able to acknowledge their agency. I do think it would also help with a financial outcome as well. If we are better placing our funds for revitalization of language and supporting cultural events that people want to use and go to, then we have higher rates of success, higher rates of engagement, and better outcomes for all involved. I think that’s a wonderful goal.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays