Keyboard app brings Indigenous languages to mobile

Indigenous language speakers can now text, type and tweet in their traditional language thanks to a new app.

Texting and tweeting in mother tongue key to revitalizing traditional languages, says app's designer

A new mobile Indigenous language app puts over 100 endangered dialects right at your fingertips. (First Peoples' Cultural Council)

Indigenous language speakers can now text, type and tweet in their traditional language thanks to a new app.

FirstVoices gives users access to over 100 Indigenous languages from Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and its aim is to reinvigorate endangered languages for the mobile age.

"One thing we need to happen is for the languages to become part of our everyday life," said Trish Rosborough, an Indigenous education professor at the University of Victoria.

"Texting, Facebook messaging, using different forms of media is something we do every day ... so to bring our Indigenous languages that we're working hard to revitalizing into that space just gives it one more opportunity to be alive in our lives."

Combining previous language tools to build a unique keyboard system, users can switch between traditional languages on their mobile devices and enter symbols and words not previously available.

"When our languages are accessible and we're using them, they're visible and that's a huge part of reconciliation: to be visible, to be valued, for our languages to be supported," said Tracey Herbert, CEO of the First Peoples' Cultural Council, who created the app. Herbert is a member of the St'uxwtews First Nation, in Cache Creek, B.C., where they speak Secwepmectsin, which is available on the app.

Giving voice to upcoming generation

W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Secondary in Brentwood Bay, B.C., is already using the app in the classroom. Grade 9 and 10 students text and email back and forth with teacher John Elliot as part of their daily lessons.

Elliot said the new app makes Indigenous languages "a little more accessible to them, and it gives them more reason to want to be using it and thinking in their own language," noting in the future, traditional languages can move away from a school subject and back into the home. The app will add to existing instruction resources.

When our languages are accessible and we're using themthey're visibleand that's a huge part of reconciliation: to be visible, to be valued, for our languages to be supported,-Tracey Herbert, CEO, First Peoples' Cultural Council

For Herbert, the app is just one of many strategies she believes are necessary for full revitalization.

 "Even though maybe in B.C. only four per cent of the people are fluent, that's not going to stop us for developing technologies that are going to allow the people that can write in their language to use them every day, and to encourage people to that are learning their languages to use these types of tools for language learning and sharing," she said.

For the release of the app, a social media campaign was launched encouraging users to share posts written in their traditional language.

Multiple strategies needed

According to a 2014 report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages from the First Peoples' Cultural Council, Indigenous communities face mounting challenges in fostering and restoring traditional languages.

Out of 31 First Nation communities and 61 dialects in the province, four per cent of speakers are fluent in their mother tongue, the majority over the age 65. Ten per cent of the population are reported as semi-speakers. The Tsilhqot'in dialect, spoken in the southernmost point in B.C. has the most with 864 fluent speakers. The Ski:xs dialect, spoken around the northern coastal town of Klemtu, has one semi-speaker out of 541 people.

Rosborough celebrates apps such as FirstVoices, having downloaded it herself to learn Kwak'wala, which her mother spoke fluently. She believes a full immersion into the language is the most effective path towards revitalization.

Students can take Indigenous languages into the classroom with a new mobile app that gives access to over 100 traditional dialects. (First Peoples' Cultural Council/Facebook)

She echoes Herbert's call for multiple strategies, and said she still relies on elders and fluent speakers in her family for a full understanding of her mother tongue.

"The elders in our community — not too many of them are on Facebook … the younger generation can really pick up these tools and use them — but we're highly dependent on the fluent speakers and engaging them."

The FirstVoices app is available for download for free for Apple and Android devices.


Cameron Perrier is an associate producer with CBC in Toronto. Raised in the Prairies, he started with CBC as a Joan Donaldson scholar. Proud of his Métis ancestry from Quebec, Cameron aims to highlight Indigenous voices and perspectives.