App uses Gwich'in elder's recordings to teach language

Nunavut developers Pinnguaq have added a new language to their educational Singuistics app: Gwich'in. The addition features recordings from an elder who sang songs for an Inuvik radio station in the 1970s.

Gwich'in language added with recordings of elder singing traditional songs from 1970s

Sarah Ga'ahdoh Peter: her forty-year-old recordings are being used on the new Gwich'in edition of the Singuistics language app. (submitted by Pinnguaq )

When Gwich'in elder Sarah Ga'ahdoh Peter sat down in the early 1970's to record a series of songs and stories for an Inuvik radio station, there was no way she could have known her words would one day be part of an online teaching tool.

"At the time it was just a recording of history," says Eleanor Mitchell-Firth, Ga'ahdoh Peter's great granddaughter.     

But earlier this week, some of those songs found a new home as part of the Singuistics app. The app uses songs and music to teach people traditional languages, but until now, has only featured songs in Inuktitut.   

Ryan Oliver is the founder of Pinnguaq, the Pangnirtung, Nunavut based developer who created the app. According to Oliver, adding Gwich'in was the idea of former Gwich'in Chief James Ross, who had met Oliver at an Ottawa Conference a few years ago.   

"James saw the app and thought it would be a good idea to do one in in Gwich'in," he says. 

Singuistics Gwich'in app allows people to learn the language by singing along with different traditional songs. (Pinnguaq)

'Why don't we just use our grandmother's songs?'

Ross took the idea back to the community of Fort McPherson, and started speaking to people about how to make it happen. One of those people was language educator Mitchell-Firth, who immediately thought of Ga'ahdoh Peter's recordings.

"James actually wanted me to learn the songs," says Eleanor, with a laugh, "but I said: 'why don't we just use our grandmother's songs and use her voice?'"

They had plenty of material to work with — Ga'ahdoh Peter's stories filled 21 cassette tapes. But not just any song would do: they had to be simple, to help people learn.   

Eleanor Mitchell Firth, Ga'ahdoh Peter's great grandaughter, who helped put together the language lessons for the app. “She (Ga’ahdoh Peter) did these things for a reason," she says, "why not share it and teach the language.” (Eleanor Mitchell Firth )
"Repetition is important, particularly at the start of the song," says Oliver. "I think the first one we put on — The Blanket Song — has a word that appears again and again.  I mean, if all you do is learn one word, it's a better outcome than this litany of language all of a sudden that you can pick and choose from." 

In the end, three songs fit the bill: Akaii, a celebration of the blanket toss; Trah Ts'at Deetrin, a song that is part of a legend about a raven who tricks a group of merganser ducks; and Black Bear Song, a song sung when a hunter killed a bear and brought it back to the community.   

The stories had already been translated by Yukon College, but it was Mitchell-Firth who worked to break down each song to make sure each word was linked correctly to the English meaning.   

"There were a few words I couldn't understand," she says, "because my grandmother used some of the old, old language that we don't really hear now."   
Illustrations by Fort McPherson artist John Bonnetplume appear with each song. (Pinnguaq)

For those words she got help from Gwich'in elders Bertha Francis and Joanne Snowshoe. Fort McPherson artist John Bonnetplume was enlisted to illustrate the songs for the app.

Right now, Singuistics is only available on iPad, but Oliver says Pinnguaq is working to make it available on other digital devices.

Oliver says that Cree and another Dene language are expected to be included in the coming months, along with some new Inuktitut songs featuring the popular band The Jerry Cans.   

But for now, the Gwich'in addition is unique in using an elder's voice, pulled from old recordings.   

"Like I told James," says Mitchell-Firth, "she (Ga'ahdoh Peter) did these things for a reason. Why not share it and teach the language?"