The game of saving a language

Kathy Manuel, language co-ordinator for the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, displays a new video game for the Nintendo DSi that will help children learn the Secwepemc language - ANDREA KLASSEN/KTW
Kathy Manuel, language co-ordinator for the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, displays a new video game for the Nintendo DSi that will help children learn the Secwepemc language
— image credit: ANDREA KLASSEN/KTW

Isn’t it always the case with technology?

You buy the latest iPad, BlackBerry or laptop, only to find it’s outdated before you’ve taken it out of the box.

That’s what happened to the Secwepemc Cultural and Education Society (SCES) with its latest high-tech attempt at saving a dying language.

But, a replacement is almost ready to go.

The SCES secured a $25,000 grant to have language-learning software built for the Nintendo DSi — a fancy new-school Game Boy.

Think of it as digital flash cards, with each card showing a picture and its meaning in written and audible Secwepemc form.

It took a year to complete and now it’s done — but, the society’s work is not.

“The Nintendo [software] is great,” said Kathy Manuel, language co-ordinator with the SCES.

“But, the way technology moves, there’s always something bigger or better.”

And, because the Nintendo software was the society’s first stab at creating high-tech, interactive Secwepemc-language learning tools, there were also a few snags.

For one, Manuel said, the software’s volume is too low, which means students — mostly between three and 10 years of age — wear earbuds to get the full effect.

That has been frowned on by educators and day-care operators.

Now, with digital archives of the Secwepemc language already put together, Manuel said the SCES is developing an iPad app that will replace the brand-new Nintendo software.

She expects the app to be complete — and ready for download — by Christmas.

Manuel said the preservation and growth of the Secwepemc language is critical for local First Nations.

There are believed to be just 150 speakers of the language alive today, located across the vast Secwepemc traditional territory ranging from the Kootenays to Williams Lake.

According to Manuel, there are about five people in Kamloops who can speak Secwepemc.

“And, they’re all elders,” she said, emphasizing the need to teach the language to youngsters.

“It’s a very complex language. It was used for thousands of years here before contact.”

Manuel said many native languages — Secwepemc included — died or came close as a result of the Canadian residential-school system, which officially ended in the 1990s.

“They were beaten and had their mouth washed out for speaking their language,” she said.

“It was literally beaten out of them. We had generations there that didn’t learn the language because of that.”

According to Manuel, the Secwepemc language didn’t even include written text until the 1970s.

For millennia until then, it had been solely oral.

Now, it’s going to be available for download in the App Store.

It’s quite the change, Manuel said, but a necessary step to get to today’s youth.

“From zero to six is the critical years,” she said.

“Those kids are like sponges. And, I’ve heard of three- or four-year-olds using iPads.

“We can’t wait until they’re 12 or 20 years old.”

Manuel said the iPad app will also be an improvement on the Nintendo software because of the broader accessibility.

A lot of people have iPads, or at least have access to them, she said, while Nintendo DSis are harder to find and equally expensive.

This jump into cyberspace could be the start of a linguistic rejuvenation, Manuel said.

“That would be nice,” she said.

“But, we need TV shows in the language, radio shows in the language, games in the language — because they [children] are just inundated with English all the time.”

The Secwepemc language is taking a big step forward in January, when Thompson Rivers University is slated to begin its first course teaching the dialect.

University staff are in the process of hiring an instructor to teach FNLG 100 — Introduction to the Secwepemc Language.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” Manuel said.

“Right now, it’s just a specialty course, but we’re hoping they accept it as an elective. It’s a credited course, but it doesn’t belong in any of the programs.”

Manuel said the Secwepemc iPad app will be free for download once it’s completed, likely before the end of the month.

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