Sunday June 18, 2017

Digital tools help revitalize rare languages

Five years ago, the Squamish language was spoken only by a handful of mostly older people. Now, online platform Kwi Awt Stelmexw, helps people learn the Squamish language, and deepen their connections to the culture.

Five years ago, the Squamish language was spoken only by a handful of mostly older people. Now, online platform Kwi Awt Stelmexw, helps people learn the Squamish language, and deepen their connections to the culture. (Khelsilem)

Listen 27:45

For many years, English has dominated the internet, leaving little space for other languages to flourish online.

Indeed, the original text used online was in the ASCII format, which only allowed for English-language characters.

But that's slowly changing, says Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who specializes in online language.

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Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch.

She says Wikipedia is a good barometer to measure how well other languages are doing online.

And although English still reigns supreme with five million entries (German is second with two million), the online encyclopedia does exist in almost three hundred languages.

Which sounds impressive, except that most of those languages only have several thousand entries, making it difficult to look up most things.

"And there are 4,000 to 6,000 languages in the world," she adds.

While the internet remains a challenge for many little-used language speakers, it is helping small groups get an online foothold. It's much easier to publish a blog online or even self-publish a dictionary with online tools, Gretchen says.

But she adds that without a large online body of words, things like spell-check, which majority language-users take for granted, make things difficult.

"English still dominates, but things are getting flatter," she says.

On the flip side, many people are working diligently to bring little-used languages back into everyday use. And while that mostly involves getting together for face-to-face conversation, digital tools can be an effective bridge precisely where a language like English normally dominates.


Revitalizing Squamish and teaching a new generation

Khelsilem is a Squamish language instructor, teaching people to speak the language of the Squamish people of southwestern British Columbia. He's also the founder of the Squamish language immersion program at Simon Fraser University. He works hard at providing an immersive language experience. There are challenges with a language like Squamish, though, which has very few native speakers.

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Khelsilem, founder of the Squamish language immersion program at Simon Fraser University. (Thosh Collins)

"If you were to learn Spanish or French, you can go and learn...in Mexico or in Quebec, and you're more likely to pick up the language," Khelsilem says.

"However for a lot of indigenous languages across Canada, there is no 'Quebec' or 'Mexico'...We have to create that, and a little bit artificially create it by creating spaces where the language is used exclusively."

Khelsilem's Squamish class includes about 800 hours of lessons in the classroom. There are also digital tools and resources, such as a talk show podcast in Squamish, so that students can take the language out of the classroom and into the world.

To text in our writing system on our phones is a huge advantage for us to continue the conversation outside of the classroom - Khelsilem

"We live our lives and express our lives through digital technology," he explains.

"A lot of my students have downloaded the keyboard for the  Squamish language...So we'll text each other in the language, we'll Facebook in the language...The ability to text in our writing system on our phones is a huge advantage for us to continue the conversation outside of the classroom." 


Pop Up Gaeltachts keep the Irish language alive

For speakers of Irish Gaelic the challenge is different.

A small minority of people grew up learning Irish in the home at their parents' knees. However, studying Irish in school is mandatory until age 17 or 18.

There is a perception amongst some people in the country that the Irish language is not a living language because they do not hear it generally in society - Osgur Ó Ciardha

Dubliners Osgur Ó Ciardha and Peadar Ó Caomhánaigh created Pop Up Gaeltacht to encourage people to actually speak Irish together.

"The Irish-language community go to a designated place - a bar usually, or a restaurant - and speak Irish...In every other way, it looks like a normal night," Osgur explains. "For Irish people, or for Dubliners especially, this is very strange."

Osgur says this is really about taking back social life in the Irish language.

"There is a perception amongst some people in the country that the Irish language is not a living language because they do not hear it generally in society," he says.  

Osgur and Peadar use Facebook and Twitter to promote their Pop Up Gaeltacht events.

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Peadar Ó Caomhanaigh and Osgur Ó Ciardha, co-founders of Pop Up Gaeltacht. (Siún Ní Dhuinn)

This is hardly unusual today. But the social media aspect does play a particular role.

It makes public what's hidden in plain sight in physical space: that there are people around who speak Irish, even if the dominant language in public in Ireland is English.

For Khelsilem, the daily work of teaching Squamish is tied to much bigger, long term goals. If they continue to produce 10 new speakers a year, he estimates, 10% of the Squamish community should speak the language by 2080.

"The other long-term goal is to raise a generation of adult speakers who are going to raise their children in the language," he says. "And we have first language speakers being raised again. That's the ultimate goal."