'How I learned my language': Ojibway man dubbing cartoons teaching Northerners to do the same

Westin Sutherland from Peguis First Nation is teaching N.W.T. language holders and learners how they can work with Elders and technology to transform cartoons and television to celebrate and promote their own languages.

Westin Sutherland learned his language by dubbing over cartoons

Westin Sutherland is the person behind a project that dubs movies into Anishinaabemowin. He says dubbing is a tool to learn and preserve Indigenous languages. (Submited by Westin Sutherland)

Westin Sutherland is in Yellowknife this week to teach 100 people how they too can dub popular cartoons and movies with their own Indigenous languages.

Sutherland, an Ojibway man from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, sees dubbing — the process of stripping out dialogue and sounds and replacing it with another language — as a tool to promote and preserve Indigenous languages. 

He says that watching television is a great way to learn a language, but when he was learning to speak Anishinaabemowin in 2015, he couldn't find any popular media in the language.

"Doing this whole project, sitting with fluent speakers, listening to how they translate, listening to their voices, 24/7 editing them and putting them on to videos … I think that's pretty much how I learned my language."

In 2017, he started dubbing over popular cartoons like Sailor Moon and SpongeBob SquarePants alongside Elders and language experts. He's now in Yellowknife to teach language enthusiasts how they can do the same.

He spoke to an audience at the Explorer Hotel this week. In attendance were about 60 participants from the Mentor Apprentice Program, which pairs fluent speakers with language learners, as well as people tuning in online from communities.

Sutherland is showing participants how to select cartoons, record dubbing, and edit it into a finished product, as well as providing guidance on voice acting to suit the characters in the dub. 

"I like to make these cartoons more humorous when they're in Ojibwe," Sutherland said.

According to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of Indigenous people aged 15 and older who speak an Indigenous language has declined from 55 per cent in 1989 to 33 per cent in 2019.

Angela James, the director of Indigenous language revitalization for the territory's education department, said there is a gap among 18 to 20 year olds in language learning, but initiatives like Sutherland's are "innovative" and "can appeal so strongly to young people."

She said that following his presentation, participants were eager to have Sutherland come to their communities to provide workshops too. 

"The language keepers were wanting to book him to come and visit their communities in order to reach the youth."

Youth, adults learning language from cartoons 

Sutherland has been dubbing to help learners of all ages, but also for fluent speakers like his grandmother, Sutherland wanted to create entertainment she could enjoy in the language.

"I wanted to choose characters that children and youth could recognize to inspire them to learn their language." 

Westin Sutherland recording voices for a dub of Sailor Moon with fluent speakers. (Submitted by Westin Sutherland)

The reaction to the cartoons has been "joyous" among language learners, he said.

"They always tell me that they're really happy to hear the language in such a unique way, a way that they've never seen at all during their lives."

Sutherland says working with Elders and showing them their voices on a cartoon character is part of the fun."They get so happy seeing that. I love hearing them laugh."

Sutherland noticed there were very few language resources for people to learn their language, and so he set out to dub popular cartoons with Elders and language speakers interpreting and overdubbing shows like Sailor Moon. (Westin Sutherland)

New language tools a 'win-win'

Kathryn Paddock, executive director of the NWT Literacy Council, which is partnering with Education, Culture and Employment during the language gathering in Yellowknife this week, said projects like Sutherland's are a creative way to promote language learning.

"Any kind of practice we find out about that's going to hook individuals, especially youth into learning their language is a win-win for me." 

For anyone who could not attend the conference, Paddock said much of the gear needed to do dubbing work has been purchased by the Western Arctic Moving Pictures (W.A.M.P.) which can make microphones and other technology available in the regions.