A British Columbia-based research team is developing an Indigenous language revitalization plan that could help reclaim one of the most complex First Nations languages in the world.
Sara Child and Caroline Running Wolf work to preserve Kwak’wala, an endangered language spoken on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland coast of the province.
Their team is working with elders to develop a framework for a new teaching method for Kwak’wala, based on the unique cultural lens of Kwakwaka’wakw communities. The language, deeply connected to the land and health, means it cannot be taught using only conventional Western pedagogy, Child explained.
“Our languages are not just about speaking, our languages are intimately linked to our well-being,” she said in an interview.
“Helping to revitalize our languages is vital because of the incredible and incredibly important knowledge that is carried and encoded in our languages and helps us walk this Earth in a very respectful and humble way.”
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Most fluent Kwak’wala speakers are in their 70s and 80s, said Child, a Kwagu’ł band member and professor of native education at North Island College. Fewer than 200 fluent speakers remain.
According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, about 75 percent Indigenous languages in Canada are on the verge of extinction.
The Kwak’wala Recovery Project, led by an all-Indigenous team, began in 2017 with support from Child’s nonprofit Sanyakola Foundation, which focuses on revitalizing Kwak’wala.
In 2020, he received support from Mitacs, a federally and provincially funded nonprofit that helps solve business challenges through research from academic institutions.
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In addition to working with elders on pedagogy, the team is developing voice-to-text technology for Kwak’wala that could work in a mobile app, with pronunciation in an elder’s voice and the ability to identify objects everyday life on photos uploaded by the user, for example.
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Kwak’wala is verb-based and works very differently from English, which means that a recognition system must be developed from scratch through carefully authenticated Kwak’wala words.
Slowly but surely, Child added, the artificial intelligence is learning the language.
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In addition to text-to-speech software, Mitacs intern Running Wolf said she aims to use virtual or augmented reality programs to help make Indigenous language learning more accessible.
“Immersive technologies are a great way to immerse yourself in this cultural context while applying the language correctly,” explained the doctoral student in interdisciplinary graduate studies at the University of British Columbia.
She said she hopes the revitalization model developed in Port Hardy, British Columbia, will help provide a model for other Indigenous nations who wish to reclaim their own languages.
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A major hurdle, Running Wolf and Child said, has been getting enough funding for the research.
“If you look at the amount of money and energy that has been expended over the centuries to eradicate Indigenous peoples, their language and their culture…the money that is now being offered to support the recovery efforts of the language is just a tiny drop in the ocean,” Running said. Wolf, a citizen of the Apsáalooke Nation in Montana.
Mitacs is providing $450,000 for the four-year project, allowing the team to develop a sustainable, multi-faceted approach to revitalization, she added.
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