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

Washington State man facing murder charges in 1987 killing of Victoria couple

Two counts of aggravated first-degree murder filed against William Talbott II in Snohomish

Labour pains: cheap help is hard to find on Vancouver Island

Big Read: high demand for workers, lack of affordable living mean imperfect storm for businesses

30 degrees and warmer forecasted with heat wave in B.C.

The weather could stay well into next week, according to Environment Canada

Developing a long-term vision for Snowden

Three presentations to Committee of the Whole all say the same thing: there needs to be a plan

REPLAY: B.C. this week in video

In case you missed it, here’s a look at replay-worthy highlights from across the province this week

Former Penticton Vee recovering in hospital

Pittsburgh Penguin prospect expected to make full recovery

BC Lions defensive back Marcell Young levels streaker in home opener

Young hit the fan near one of the 45-yard lines

Police: Taxi driver who hit 8 Moscow pedestrians fell asleep

Two Mexican World Cup fans were among those hit

B.C. VIEWS: Orphans of our urban drug culture neglected again

Child advocate Bernard Richard leaves B.C. with harsh message

From marijuana beer to pot cookies, Canadian companies creating cannabis edibles

Manufacturers think that edibles will do well with users who don’t want to smoke or vape

Privacy lawyer warns against victim blaming in recent sextortion scams

Perpetrators get sexual photos of the victim and threaten to share them with friends and families

QB Jennings leads Lions to 22-10 win over Alouettes

B.C. wins CFL home opener over Montreal

Most Read