Port Hardy Research Team Revitalizes Indigenous Language With Unique Plan

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An Indigenous-led research team based in Port Hardy is developing a unique approach to revitalizing an Indigenous language, with a focus on teaching people how to “live” their language.

Sara Child, a professor of Indigenous education at North Island College, is leading a research study to reclaim Kwak’wala, which is considered one of the most complex Indigenous languages ​​in the world.

“Language revitalization is not just about learning to speak forgotten words. It’s about learning to look at the whole world through an Indigenous lens,” says Child.

Child says language revitalization is vital for “individual and collective well-being” and she hopes her team’s work can reclaim kwak’wala.

“Suicide and traumatic death are no stranger to our people, and our young people in particular, and I believe deep in my soul that relearning our languages ​​will change that, as long as our language learning is done in a way that respects our traditional values ​​and beliefs and our connection to the land,” Child said.

“I am passionate about this work, which I dedicate to my nephew, Eugene Kenneth Child, who left us far too early in life.

Child says what makes his team’s work different is the approach, understanding that language is intrinsically linked to the land and well-being and therefore requires a different pedagogy from conventional Western teaching methods.

“Our people believe that if you are hurt physically, you are also hurt emotionally and spiritually, so we need to hold a ceremony to remove the hurt from your mind and emotion so that physical healing can begin,” says Child. “It’s part of our job, to make sure people understand this essential aspect of our language with translation.”

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The project has four interns who work in consultation with elders to build a framework for what is a “new Kwakwak-based pedagogy”.awakw lens will look like. Part of their tasks will include the development of advanced voice-to-text technology, such as a mobile application, capable of identifying everyday objects from images taken on a smartphone, with spoken Kwak’wala words. with the voice of an elder, notes Child.

According to one of the team members, the hope is to use new technology to offer automatic speech recognition to Kwak’wala in hopes of making learning more accessible.

“Imagine if you could immerse yourself in Indigenous culture, interact and talk with elders as you embark on a virtual canoe trip through your home territory. You’d have fun and learn to speak the language at the same time, just like people regularly play games to learn other languages,” said Caroline Running Wolf, a doctoral student in the University’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program. of British Columbia and a citizen of the Apsáalooke Nation (Crow Nation) in Montana.

Child says the main challenge for Indigenous languages ​​in the tech industry is that the vast majority of text-to-speech technologies are developed for English, whereas Indigenous languages ​​are verb-based and work very differently from English. English. As a result, researchers are forced to develop their own recognition system from scratch, authenticating transcribed words from archived sources before passing them to an advanced machine learning system.

“This work is arduous and time-consuming, adding complexity and barriers to Indigenous language revitalization,” Child said.

“One of those hurdles is that English, French, and other major languages ​​of the world receive billions of dollars in support, while Indigenous languages ​​receive tiny amounts,” Child explained. “If we break the code for building voice-to-text technology for Kwak’wala – and I’m sure we will – the impact will be absolutely phenomenal across the world.”

Funding for the project is $450,000 over three years and Child says finances are key as they provide the research team with sustainability and time to develop a proposal and plan. longer term.

“One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in language revitalization work is that research projects are typically underfunded, which often forces researchers to work in isolation and at several different jobs for longer periods of time. short, resulting in piecemeal solutions,” notes Child.

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