High tech saves ancient language

March 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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Ethel Gardner, known as Stelómethet in her Stó:lo aboriginal community, is fusing the technical wizardry of new media with the ancient knowledge of her elders in a bid to save her dying language.

The Simon Fraser University assistant professor of education is developing an electronic master-apprentice language-learning program, the first of its kind in B.C. Three Stó:lo elders will be the program's first masters, helping its first apprentices, six Stó:lo teachers in training, become fluent in their mother tongue, Stó:lo Halq'eméylem.

The apprentices are moderately fluent in the language, but will need to become highly fluent to teach in an aboriginal language immersion setting.

With only four Stó:lo Nation elders left who are fully fluent in Stó:lo Halq'eméylem, the ancient language is on the critically endangered list of aboriginal languages. Gardner is a well-known expert on aboriginal language renewal. She believes computer and worldwide web technologies can help revive her language by making it easier for its few remaining fluent speakers to pass on their knowledge.

The e-master-apprentice program will bring together far away masters and apprentices into one electronic face-to-face learning environment at a mutually convenient time. The apprentices will have completed language and culture teacher training through a SFU/Stó:lo partnership program.

"The masters are 69 to more than 80 years old and live in far apart Stó:lo communities along the Fraser River," explains Gardner. "They don't have the physical strength or money to do a lot of traveling and would find the demands of a conventional master/apprentice program quite tiring. They'd have to teach each apprentice 10 hours a week at his or her home, and that would involve hours of listening to apprentices repeat language constructs."

Using computer-assisted instruction, web-based writing and teaching tools, and audio/video web communication techniques, masters in the e-program will coach students from their own homes. Students can practice language constructs on their own time, using pre-recorded audiovisual material created by the masters.

A Stó:lo doctoral student in education at SFU, who is specialized in using digital technologies for teaching and learning, will help the elders and apprentices become new media savvy. A Secwepemc master's student in educational technology at SFU will educate them about research tracking and evaluation techniques.

Based on theories about how to enhance learning, the apprentices will tell their masters what they want to learn. They will use their new media experience to turn newly acquired language skills into multimedia resources for teaching Stó:lo Halq'eméylem in public and Stó:lo community schools. The apprentices will become masters in training, and will use their newly acquired research evaluation skills to report on their e-master/apprentice experience.

"Through this research we hope to determine the effectiveness of computer and worldwide web technologies as pedagogical tools for developing highly fluent speakers of a critically endangered language," sums up Gardner. "The results of this study will have implications for the fields of education, linguistics, cultural studies and First Nations studies."

Gardner is collaborating on this research with Gwen Point, the education manager of the Stó:lo Nation's language program. Five other organizations are involved as partners and or have a vested interested in Gardner's project. They are SFU faculty of education field programs, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council, First Nations education steering committee and its language sub-committee. Funded by a $250,000 newly created aboriginal research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Gardner's research is slated to finish in April 2007.

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