The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Chat app strengthens Canada’s diminishing indigenous languages

By in Technology

An indigenous language chat application for mobile devices has created a shimmer of hope for the survival of aboriginal culture across the province and country.

FirstVoices Chat is an iPhone application with over 100 keyboards for indigenous languages compatible with Facebook Chat and Google Talk.

The B.C. based app may be just what Saskatchewan’s indigenous languages need to recover their lost speakers.

The total number of indigenous language speakers in Saskatchewan fell by 0.94 per cent between 2006 and 2011, a difference of over 2000 people.

Winona Wheeler, head of the department of native studies at the University of Saskatchewan, explained that lack of support for these languages led to the decline in speakers. She said the federal and provincial governments, as well as universities and colleges, need to provide more indigenous language programming for small communities before it is too late.

“Compared to other provinces, the state of native languages here is faring [well] but the reality is that native languages disappear real quick,” Wheeler said.

Within the province the two less-spoken languages, Lakota and Dakota, along with more widely-spoken ones like Dene, are not receiving enough support from the government and other institutions to keep them from disappearing, Wheeler said.

She said that even at the community level, the Lakota and Dakota languages are receiving very little support to keep a consistent number of speakers. Dene is prominent in northern Saskatchewan as a spoken language but does not have many institutionalized literacy programs.

“It is absolutely vital that the University of Saskatchewan puts the resources that are required into developing language programming at this university that will benefit communities,” Wheeler said.

The lack of resources going into language curriculum development is the major hurdle Saskatchewan faces in its efforts to sustain indigenous languages.

Currently the only indigenous language offered at the U of S is Cree.

Wheeler said that Dene, Michif and Anishinaabe would all benefit from having courses offered at the university.

Indigenous languages were traditionally used only for oral communication and have been passed down through families through storytelling. Wheeler said that when indigenous languages die, cultures are lost with them.

“The older people will tell you that all the philosophical reasonings, the world view, the value systems are ingrained in the language,” Wheeler said. “The language is the vehicle through which you learn a people’s world view.”

Wheeler marks the residential school system as the beginning of the massive decline of indigenous language speakers.

“Out of fear for their children and in attempt to protect their children, many did not teach indigenous languages to their children for fear that their kids would suffer the same things they suffered,” Wheeler said.

But Peter Brand, manager of FirstVoices, believes that the creation of the FirstVoices Chat application is the dawn of a new era for indigenous languages in Canada.

The developing team went beyond the original 32 dialects of B. C. to include all of the indigenous languages in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as some in the United States.

The app also allows the user to copy and paste a large body of text from supported chat programs into Microsoft Word and email platforms. This feature allows users to communicate in indigenous languages outside of Facebook Chat and Google Talk.

Aboriginal Canadians have been returning to their roots and reviving their languages that were lost during residential school times. Brand said that it tends to be 20- to 30-year-olds who spearhead efforts to revive indigenous languages.

“It was those young people who first asked us for that app and they use it on a daily basis as a normal part of their daily life,” Brand said.

“There’s no doubt that their language is really a wonderful example of what can transpire when that generation takes an interest in maintaining the language for their children’s sake.”

Brand said that creating the FirstVoice Chat app was an excellent way of getting the younger population reconnected with their indigenous languages in the written form. In the past, programs to revive indigenous languages put in place by the government have been short-lived without creating long-term results of language retention.

In 2002, the Liberal government set aside $172 million to be spent over 11 years on preserving indigenous languages in Canada. Five years later in 2007, the conservative government cut the funding.

Currently, the Department of Canadian Heritage provides $5 million annually to fund community-based language preservation projects under the Aboriginal Languages Initiative.

The FirstVoices Chat app is free to download from the App Store.

Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

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