Saving a dwindling First Nations language, through an app

There aren’t many Southern Tutchone speakers left in the Yukon — so Nicole Smith and her late grandmother Irene are working together to save it.

'It’s great for me to be able to work with her and her language, still, even after she’s passed on'

The Yukon Native Language Centre estimates that there are between 150 to 250 people left who are fluent. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Ta'an Kwach'an woman Nicole Smith and her grandmother Irene Smith are working together to revive the Southern Tutchone language in the Yukon.

But Irene died more than five years ago.

Instead, Irene's voice — captured in sound waves from a little square app on a smart phone — will soon reverberate throughout the Yukon to many who are seeking to learn the dwindling Southern Tutchone language.

"It's great for me to be able to work with her and her language, still, even after she's passed on," said Nicole, an elementary school teacher who is also recording some words to be used on the new language app. 

Nicole Smith is learning and teaching Southern Tutchone using the new app she helped develop. (CBC/Cheryl Kawaja)

There aren't many Southern Tutchone speakers left in the Yukon, and it's a language with several dialects. The Yukon Native Language Centre estimates that there are between 150 to 250 people left who are fluent.

For Nicole, her learning journey started five years ago.

"Although my grandmother raised me, and my grandfather, they didn't speak to me in the language all the time. [They used] short commands [like] 'Go get this or go get that,'" recalled Nicole.

It was really tough at first.- Nicole Smith

So when she started using her late grandmother's recording, listening to her voice wasn't easy.

"It was really tough at first," said Nicole. "Now I've heard it so many times, it's fine. And I enjoy listening to it."

The app launches this week and will be available for free download.

A 'great idea'

Irene's recording was archived at the Yukon Native Language Centre that has been documenting language in the Yukon for about 40 years.

The centre provided the recording and linguistic support to the Ta'an Kwach'an Council, who launched the project.

"A lot of the youth have smartphones, and are always on their phones. I thought it was a great idea to develop the app," said Michelle Telep, deputy chief of the council.

Telep is the deputy chief of the Ta'an Kwach'an Council that took on this project to preserve the dwindling Southern Tutchone language. (CBC/Cheryl Kawaja)

With the help of a Winnipeg company Ogoki Learning, the app was programmed to work without Internet connection once downloaded on a phone.

Telep says she hopes that other First Nations would develop similar strategies for their language.

For Nicole, her hope is for her children to start using the app to learn her grandmother's native tongue, and for her students to use it during class. 

"Technology in the classroom is where we're going so this is great for teachers to use."

with files from Cheryl Kawaja

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