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Researchers revive endangered Blackfoot language using digital technology

June 21, 2021
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Simon Fraser University researchers have created a new online resource to help people learn Blackfoot, an endangered language spoken since time immemorial by First Nations in what is now known as Alberta and Montana. 

The Blackfoot language revitalization website launches today, June 21, in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day. 

The free resource teaches vocabulary, pronunciation, allows the learner to practice forming sentences and tests their understanding by asking them to recall what a particular Blackfoot word means in English. 

As of 2016, there were less than 5,000 speakers of Blackfoot and the language is officially recognized as endangered by UNESCO. The impact of residential schools has played a role in disrupting the passing of Indigenous languages from one generation to the next. There are few fluent Elders who are able to teach the language to the next generation.

Blackfoot is the mother tongue of three First Nations: Siksiká, Piikani (formerly Peigan) and Kainai. The Siksiká and Kainai Nations are located in Southern Alberta while the Piikani are divided between the Blackfeet Nation in Montana (Southern Piikani) and Piikani Nation in southern Alberta (Northern Piikani). 

One of the project goals is to produce a community-oriented language-learning instrument for the Peigan Board of Education in Brocket, Alberta that will be integrated into the school’s Blackfoot language classes. Piikani children learn Blackfoot from kindergarten up to Grade 6 four times a week at 45 minutes per class.  

The Blackfoot language revitalization project is led by Eldon Yellowhorn, SFU’s founding chair of Indigenous Studies who is a member of the Piikani Nation and a native speaker of the endangered language. 

“When my community of Brocket got connected to the electrical grid in 1961, our connection to Blackfoot began to weaken because broadcast media such as TV, radio, movies and music all came to our homes in English. Now we are facing this mass extinction of languages and we are working to reverse that trend by increasing the number of speakers,” Yellowhorn says. “A lot of Indigenous People also live in cities where they don’t have opportunities to speak their own language or to have their kids learn the language, which is why having an effective language learning tool is so important.” 

Once travel is safe again, Yellowhorn plans to meet and record Blackfoot-speaking Elders in Alberta to include their voices in the project and expand the options of words and phrases in the chatbot.

Computer science students build Blackfoot chatbots

More than 300 SFU computer science students contributed to the initiative, creating web-based chatbots as part of the final project for their undergraduate computer science course CMPT 120 – Intro to CS and Programming.
 
“Students were able to recognize, produce and translate sentences in Blackfoot and everyone thought it was an amazing way to be introduced to a new language,” says Angelica Lim, assistant professor of professional practice, School of Computing Science.

The next step is to upload the program into a language robot that kids can interact with. The team also hopes to create learning modules to teach youth grammar and sentence structure. And a text to speech function is currently under development. 

The Blackfoot revitalization project is funded by a federal government Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant.