Tessa Erickson, grade 10 Nak’azdli student leading the way to revitalising her language. Photo Fiona Maureen

Teen creating app, summer camp to revive dialect

Turning to technology to help revive an Indigenous language nearly lost to residential school system

  • Jan. 7, 2018 12:00 a.m.

On Jan. 13, 2018 the Caledonia Courier interviewed grade 10 student, Tessa Erickson, of Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation, to find out more about a language app she is developing. It is an initiative that has a lot of people excited because here we have a 15 year old youth taking the lead in finding a way to learn her dialect of Dakelh (Carrier) and teach other young people in her community their Nak’azdli language which is at risk of being lost. “It’s morphed into something bigger and jump-started quite a lot of people.” says Tessa’s father.

Tessa Erickson is the perfect candidate for the task of revitalising her language because she is extremely curious and interested in learning. She finds languages fascinating. “I really enjoy the ability to understand what someone else is expressing to me.” She started teaching herself French with an app called ‘Dualingo’ and she is taking an introductory Spanish course in school.

“Last year I took a Carrier language class at the College of New Caledonia. It’s not the Nak’azdli dialect, it’s the Tl’azt’en one, but it’s pretty similar. It helped me with reading. It showed me how to use grammar and form proper sentences in the language. I’d seen Dakehl on paper before but I didn’t know how to pronounce it. I want to know how to say the words and memorize a lot more vocabulary, so that I can form more complex sentences and express ideas better.”

Learning the Tlazt’en dialect is what sparked the idea that Erickson wanted to learn her own Nak’azdli dialect and there weren’t any classes being offered. She was already learning French using a free app called Duolingo, and that is what led to the idea of building an app specifically for her own language. Erickson is now taking a free android programming and developing course to help her with the app.

“I’ve actually been really interested in learning the Nak’azdli dialect for quite some time now,” says Erickson. “I just know simple words and colours.” Erickson says she has not had much exposure to the Nak’azdli dialect from her family. When she asks they will share some words, but “They don’t speak it with me.” This is directly attributed to the scars of the residential school system. Members of her nation were fluent in the dialect about three generations ago, before they were sent to residential schools. Speaking their native language was forbidden and her grandparents were shamed into speaking only English. As a result, they were afraid to teach the language to their children so her parents’ generation never learned the language and Tessa Erickson feels it’s time to do something about that. “I really want to revitalise it [Nak’azdli].

Funding from a Nak’azdli Whut’en grant will help Tessa Erickson with her project which includes not only building the interactive language app but also organising a Nak’azdli language immersion summer camp for youth to take their learning beyond the app and practice speaking it together with help from elders and others who can share their knowledge of how to speak it.

“The other thing that is kinda odd is we have to make new words for everyday things because the language is still stuck three generations back,” says Erickson. “Nak’azdli words for ‘cellphone’ and things like ‘computer’ don’t exist. I want to find out how many modern words there are and learn how to create words that are missing.”

Tessa Erickson’s goal is not only for her own learning and to increase her vocabulary, but to add words to the Nak’azdli dictionary and “bring it to all the young people of our community. The app will help them start to learn the language and then we’ll teach them more as they attend the camp.”

Erickson is taking her inspiration from different existing apps. She wants to keep the design simple and fun, with lessons that teach greetings and give answers for simple questions. She would like to build in a mini reward system similar to Duolingo’s “lingots” app-based virtual currency to help encourage students to progress through the lessons.

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. Erickson’s vision for the camp is “for youth to see that it’s not just an older generation thing and not getting upset when they mess up. I felt it was a bit hard learning the language from elders only because they might say “oh you’re not pronouncing this right” and then when I ask, “Well how do you pronounce it?” and then they tell me but I always felt that I shouldn’t try again in case I got it wrong.”

Erickson’s idea to incorporate the immersion camps are essential to truly bringing the Nak’azdli dialect back to life in everyday usage which is key to revitalisation.

“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.”

“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.”

The next step for Erickson is “looking at getting a team of young people together to help make the app and then we can delegate and share and then combine the work. I don’t want to hire professional developers, I want us to learn how to develop because it will open up other opportunities.”

And beyond her own dialect, Erickson’s big goal to is “we want to include other communities who want to learn their dialects and branch out and help them out too because obviously it’s not just our dialect that’s struggling, it’s many across Canada and the States around the world too.”

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 and restoring pride, identity, belonging, he said.

Erickson’s work is so very important and empowering.

She was recently asked by the First Nations Education Foundation (FNEF) to be the Chair of their Youth Council. Her work for Nak’azdli is a perfect fit for the FNEF mandate, which, as they describe on their website is to collaborate with First Nation governments “to develop language revitalization programs for at-risk indigenous dialects using contemporary educational practices and innovative, interactive technology.” Erickson is remaining modest and not wanting to get ahead of herself, “I said I would think about it and see how it goes with the app.”

FirstVoices Language Archive is another support which Erickson can access to develop the app technology, provide extra resources for the immersion camps and help keep the learning fun. FirstVoices is described as “a suite of web-based tools and services designed to support Aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching and culture revitalization.” FirstVoices could help Erickson archive the Nak’azdli dialect language data, text and sounds with pictures and videos. Plus FirstVoices developers can take the archived language and build “a companion set of interactive online games and creative learning activities.

Right now there’s an “exciting energy” across Canada among people doing the work, Turin 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 last June that the federal government would collaborate with Metis, Inuit and First Nations leaders on developing legislation to save and revive their languages.