Skeetchestn elders working on the epic story of the character Tlli7sa for the story app. [Photo: First Nations Language Centre, SFU].

Linguistics, First Nations

How SFU and First Nations Keep Endangered Languages Alive

July 13, 2016

By Christopher Cheung from The Tyee, 13 July 2016:

A group of Haida elders in their nineties gathered around a microphone on Lucy Bell's dining room table. Every Haida word they spoke into it was another word recorded for future generations.

It was a touching experience for Bell. Her grandmother spoke Haida, a language also known as Xaad Kil and X╠▒aaydaa Kil when she was young.

"Many in my generation grew up hearing it but not speaking it, and knowing how precious it was to learn it," said Bell, now 45 and co-ordinator at Haida Gwaii's Xaad Kihlga Hl Suu.u Society of language. She learned Haida as an adult.

Indigenous languages in Canada are declining as elder native speakers die. Not long after Bell made the Haida recordings, two of the elders who participated passed away.

The language project that Bell is a part of began in 2013. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada awarded a $2.5-million partnership grant to Simon Fraser University's First Nations Language Centre. The money supports a seven-year project to preserve and revitalize the languages of 22 First Nations groups in British Columbia and Yukon, with technology playing a large role.

The language recordings that Bell and others produced are more than simple records; they're part of interactive lessons for web and mobile apps. Bell's dream is that the new tools will help teach Indigenous youth their languages as early as possible.

"We're at a watershed moment," said Marianne Ignace, director of the First Nations Language Centre.

Read more from The Tyee...