B.C. teen creating app, summer camp to revive First Nations language

Tessa Erickson says camps will provide pre-teens and teens with an immersive language experience

A 15-year-old high school student in British Columbia is turning to technology to help address a decades-old problem — how to revive an Indigenous language nearly lost to the residential school system.

Tessa Erickson of the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation is creating an app and organizing a summer camp to help get younger people in her central B.C. community speaking the Nak’azdli dialect of the Dakelh language.

“To me, it’s a bit of a symbol,” she said. “The language is really important to me, personally, because it’s a way to connect with my community and really bridge the gap between the generations.”

Members of her nation were fluent in the dialect about three generations ago, before they were sent to residential schools, Erickson said.

The Grade 10 student said she’s been told generations since then were afraid to teach the language to their children.

“They didn’t want the same experiences they went through to happen to their children if they passed on this language that was kind of looked down upon,” Erickson said.

Languages don’t die naturally but are actively snuffed out, usually by colonial forces, said Mark Turin, chairman of the First Nations and endangered languages program at the University of British Columbia.

Bringing them back is an explicitly activist and political act, and one that is key to reconciliation, he said.

“Languages are about a lot more than words and grammar,” Turin said. ”A huge amount of local understanding, of culture, ecology, relationships with ancestors, with the past and with the land is all encoded in language.”

Right now there’s an “exciting energy” across Canada among people doing the work, he added.

There’s some support from government, too.

Ottawa has committed $89.9 million over three years to preserving, protecting and revitalizing Indigenous languages and cultures, and it was announced in June that the federal government would collaborate with Metis, Inuit and First Nations leaders on developing legislation to save and revive their languages.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in 2016 that restoring Indigenous languages is the key to preventing suicides in First Nations communities.

He said Indigenous communities that do a better job of teaching their own language and culture see “massive decreases in suicide rates,” and those languages are an indicator of pride, identity, belonging and culture.

People already working to refresh and preserve mother tongues are using a variety of methods, Turin said. But everyday usage is key to revitalization.

“Tools and technology don’t save languages — speakers do,” he said. ”No app, no online dictionary, no website is going to help bring a language back. That’s about the commitment that people have.”

There are only a few people still alive who fluently speak the Nak’azdli dialect of the Dakelh language, Erickson said, and she’s working with them as she develops her app and plans for summer camps.

The app will be simple, she said, with lessons that teach greetings and give answers for simple questions.

Erickson hopes it will be ready for spring, so kids can use it before heading off to sleep-over language summer camps.

She said the camps will provide pre-teens and teens with an immersive language experience.

Erickson is also looking to improve her Dakelh. She already knows some words and can hold a simple conversation, but said she wants to work on communicating more complex thoughts.

Canada is in a unique position to lead other countries in the process of breathing new life into Indigenous languages, Turin said, adding he can see a future where Indigenous languages are included in this country’s official languages.

“These languages should be encouraged and nurtured and given the resources to thrive in this multicultural and diverse society.”

Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that there were more than 60 Indigenous languages reported, grouped into 12 distinct language families.

In November, Six Nations Polytechnic in southwestern Ontario launched its own app to help people learn the endangered Mohawk language.

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

UPDATE: Proposal to replace Surrey Knight & Day with 25-storey highrise gets early nod

Surrey council gave the application first and second reading Monday, and a public hearing is set for Oct. 1

Syrian family can, finally, feel safe

Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity White Rock meets sponsored family for the first time

Former Surrey MP Gurmant Grewal supports Bernier’s new party

Gurmant Grewal has thrown his lot in with Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada

Road closures as Surrey firefighters battle propane blaze

Surrey RCMP control traffic as firefighers fight fire at Pacific Propane Container Recycling

Cloverdale, Langley Thanksgiving food drive collects ‘record-breaking’ amount of food

Annual food drive collected 35,000 lbs of food for Langley Food Bank

B.C. tent city ‘devastated’ after flash flood

Maple Ridge mayor says that residents shouldn’t have to return to their flooded tents

5 to start your day

A man charged in the death of Belgian tourist, a Syrian family feeling safe in B.C. and more

1st private moon flight passenger to invite creative guests

The Big Falcon Rocket is scheduled to make the trip in 2023, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced at an event Monday at its headquarters near Los Angeles.

‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Mrs. Maisel’ triumph at Emmys

In a ceremony that started out congratulating TV academy voters for the most historically diverse field of nominees yet, the early awards all went solely to whites.

Korean leaders meet in Pyongyang for potentially tough talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in began his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday.

Russia blames Israel for plane shot down by Syrian missile

A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down over the Mediterranean Sea as it was returning to its home base inside Syria, killing all 15 people on board.

Vancouver park board passes motion to learn Indigenous place names

The name of Vancouver’s Stanley Park is now up for debate as the city’s park board confronts its colonial past and pursues reconciliation.

Champ golfer from Spain killed in Iowa; suspect charged

Police said Celia Barquin Arozamena was found dead Monday morning at Coldwater Golf Links in Ames, about 30 miles north of Des Moines.

Abdelrazik torture lawsuit delay would be unconscionable: lawyer

The federal government is making a last-minute plea to delay the Federal Court hearing

Most Read