North

'Help continue our language': Alaskan Inuit dialect added to Facebook

The option to switch your language is only available on a computer, not mobile devices, but language revivalists are excited about the inclusion of their Indigenous language to the popular social media site.

Facebook Translate app allows users to request and translate the social site into their language

Myles Creed is involved in the Inupiaq revitalization community in Alaska. He's a PhD student studying linguistics at the University of Victoria. (Submitted by Myles Creed )

Facebook added Inupiaq, an Alaskan Inuit dialect, as a language option thanks to a grassroots project started by an Alaskan man.

Myles Creed is from the Inupiaq community of Kotzebue, Alaska. He's a PhD student studying linguistics at the University of Victoria and is involved with Inupiaq language revitalization in Alaska.

"A lot of the discussions we've had is on, how do we make sure that the language is accessible to all people in all places?" he said.

He's currently learning Inupiaq, describing himself as an intermediate learner.

He saw Facebook as an online space that can be made accessible to Indigenous languages.

"I think technology often can be thought of as a scary thing because English is so dominant online," he said.

"I also think that technology can be used as an opportunity for Indigenous languages to thrive in places that they hadn't been represented in before."

Created an app

Creed's first crack at trying to get Inupiaq on Facebook was by creating an app.

"It was a little bit wonky," he said. And Facebook already had its own application — Facebook Translate. "Basically it's crowdsourcing to translate Facebook."

But Creed knew someone working at Facebook in San Francisco who could help him get Inupiaq as a translation option.

"Which was a great first step," said Creed.

He began gathering Inupiaq speakers to translate the words from English — but getting volunteers was slow going.

"You really need like thousands of translations to get the interface going," he said. "So I was realizing around the end of last year that we were going to need professional translators."

So for unfriend, I would put Avilaitqatigisungaiq, which really translates to 'not want to be friends anymore.- Muriel Gail Hopson, Inupiaq translator

He applied for and received a mini-grant of $2,000 in January from the Alaskan Humanities Forum to pay two translators for their work.

Since then, Pausauraq Harcharek and Muriel Gail Hopson have put in hours translating hundreds of words from English to Inupiaq.

"Inupiaq is my first language and I chose to become a translator a very long time ago," said Hopson, who is from Wainright, Alaska. She says words like "unfriend" aren't an issue for her.

"So the word for friend is avilaitqan. So for unfriend, I would put Avilaitqatigisungaiq, which really translates to 'not want to be friends anymore.'"

Here's how to change the language settings on Facebook:

Facebook has added Inupiaq, an Alaskan Inuit dialect, as a language option. Here's how to use it. 0:53

Facebook could add more Indigenous languages

The option to switch your language is only available on a computer, not mobile devices. Creed said anyone can request a language through the Facebook Help Centre.

He's encouraging any Indigenous speaker who wants to see their language translated on Facebook to put in a request.

"The more requests they receive, probably the more likely they are to give you a response."

Once Facebook receives enough requests, it gets added to the Facebook Translate app. From there, anyone can go to the app and enter the translation for English words.

"There is an interface that is used where all I do is — for English terms, it gives you a blank below it to type the translation into Inupiaq," said Hopson.

It's an entire database of English words waiting to be translated. From there, users are allowed to vote in favour of or against a translation. Once a translation receives enough positive votes, they appear on Facebook.

Hopson can't count how many words she's translated, but Creed guesses it's at least in the hundreds now.

"I think it's a great way to help continue our language ... especially for the younger ones that we want to know our language," says Hopson.

An entire glossary is created with English terms ready to be translated into Inupiatun.