Modern tools for indigenous languages | Work of Arts
Modern tools for indigenous languages | Work of Arts

Modern tools for indigenous languages

Part 3 of an in-depth look at the Arts-based KIAS Cluster Grant research projects

The Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) marked its fifth anniversary this year with the announcement of a $500,000 research cluster grant awarded to six research projects across UAlberta’s social sciences, humanities and arts faculties. 

This is the third in a series profiling the four Arts research projects chosen to receive cluster grant funds.

Those of us whose first language is English may take for granted the accessibility of English language tools in the modern world.Hammurabi

Applications are easy to navigate when devices offer tools like spell-check and text-prediction in English. Dictating a text from behind the wheel is simple when your mobile phone offers a speech-to-text analyzer in your language.

While these tools are rapidly becoming commonplace for all major national languages, they don’t yet exist for the many thousands of smaller, Indigenous languages around the world.

And that is what a group of interdisciplinary researchers at UAlberta is hoping to rectify, in collaboration with Indigenous communities and researchers working with their languages.

21st Century Tools for Indigenous Languages is one of four Faculty of Arts-based projects to receive KIAS Cluster Grant funding. Antti Arppe, assistant professor of quantitative linguistics, says he hopes it will play a part in contributing to the quality of life for Indigenous language users.

“Nowadays, we use language more and more on electronic gadgets, notepads, smartphones. And for the majority of the languages you have tools to help you converse; it is much more inconvenient if you can’t use your native language,” says Arppe. “In creating these tools for minority language speakers, we’re hoping to facilitate the use of languages in all aspects of life for community members.”

“Nowadays, we use language more and more on electronic gadgets, notepads, smartphones. And for the majority of the languages you have tools to help you converse; it is much more inconvenient if you can’t use your native language.”

According to Arppe, language plays a central role in the identity of a community, and it’s a key channel for culture, traditions and values to be passed down and preserved.

“Research shows that there is a strong connection between the maintenance of Indigenous languages and the well-being of those communities,” says Arppe. “The goal of our research project is to support the development of these tools specifically for these languages, and we’ve chosen Plains Cree and Northern Haida to pilot the project.”

The project will bring together field linguists who study Indigenous languages and communities with people who can turn the results of that research into computer tools.

However, 21st Century Tools for Indigenous Languages goes beyond providing tools; it also addresses some of the issues and sensitivities surrounding the language of these Indigenous communities.

“Often these technology developers are not aware of the cultural and educational needs of a community when it comes to preserving and sharing a language,” says Arppe. “Field linguists we collaborate with are in the communities listening and asking the important questions we need in order to develop these tools in a culturally sensitive manner. Without addressing the needs of the Indigenous communities from early on, there is little point in developing these tools. In the case of Plains Cree spoken here in Alberta, we are very pleased that we have just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Miyo Wahkohtowin Education of the Ermineskin Cree band in Maskwacîs.”

The software and tools created through this research project will also be used to help people learn these minority languages.

“The models we create will be able to help people use these languages in business, administration, anywhere you would expect to use English or French in your community, and of course as a teaching tool for those who want to learn the language,” says Arppe.

The KIAS funding will allow the Indigenous Languages team to continue focusing their efforts on Plains Cree and Northern Haida research, to extend their current support base and begin developing models for the language technology.

The team has already connected with a variety of local and international partners including the University of Tromsø in Norway and the First Nations University of Canada. They will have a chance to expand on some of these partnerships to other Indigenous languages during a technology development workshop they’re planning for June, and then reaching out to Indigenous communities as well.

To read more about KIAS, follow this link and watch this space for more profiles on Arts projects funded by this year’s KIAS Research Cluster Grant.

With files from Janet Harvey.


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  • Lucille Munro

    I would be very interested in being a part of this Research Cluster. I will be moving to St. Paul, Alberta at the end of September 2015, and am interested in contributing to research projects from home.

    I recently, June 2015, graduated from the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Aboriginal Studies and Canadian Studies

    I can be reached at my Ottawa cell phone number here in Alberta at 1-613-914-2924

    Respectfully I remain,