3D-printed Cree syllabics kit makes language learning more hands-on

A set of 3D printer designs of the Cree syllabic chart is helping students learn the language.

'I'm hoping that this opens doors for how people are learning languages'

Kaia MacLeod took some 3D designs her sister made and printed out some Cree syllabic sets for the University of Alberta. (Submitted by Kaia MacLeod)

As the Indigenous intern at the University of Alberta libraries, Kaia MacLeod noticed there were a lot of learning materials for the Blackfoot language and not nearly as many for Cree.

MacLeod, a member of the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, had an idea and she needed her sister's help to do it.

Her sister created a set of 3D printer designs of the Cree syllabics chart, and MacLeod brought her designs to life in a kit that students can check out at the library.

Since she needed a project as part of her master's program in library and information studies, it felt like a good fit. 

"It just made sense and it was like the stars had aligned," MacLeod said.

A full kit of 3D-printed syllabics, available for rent at the University of Alberta (pandemic permitting). The word spelled out is tânisi, which means "hello, how are you?" (Submitted by Kaia MacLeod)

The kit is a complete set of syllabics and spirit markers, with a few accents, too.

Like the development of language learning apps, Indigenous people are finding different ways to reach their young learners in hopes they carry the language on. 

For MacLeod, she thinks the 3D-printed syllabics will help.

"I'm hoping that this opens doors for how people are learning languages," she said.

'They really enjoy it'

Jasmine Fouillard is one of those language learners. Her mother won a set of the 3D-printed syllabics as a door prize and since Foulliard and her children were learning Nehiyawewin (Plains Cree language) at the time, her mother gave the set to them.

But all the little pieces were being lost, flying all over the place, she said, so she got creative and stuck magnets to the back of the pieces.

Jasmine Fouillard put magnets on each syllabic so her kids who are learning Cree, ages nine and four, can use them easily. (Submitted by Jasmine Fouillard)

Her two sons are nine and four and have a hard time keeping up with their instructor writing too fast, she said. The 3D-printed syllabics are a great way for them to stay with the class, Fouillard said.

"It's just kind of become another tool for my sons," Fouillard said.

"They really enjoy it now and it's more accessible for them."

Fouillard is a registered provisional psychologist and a former teacher originally from Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta. She said the 3D-printed syllabics, similar to the building blocks young learners get in school, is a kinesthetic way for kids to learn languages.

"This is just another little way for them to focus on what's the topic," she said.

You can also print your own syllabics using the files here.