Research team’s breakthrough work helps revitalize Indigenous languages

The Team

Caroline Running Wolf, member of the Apsáalooke Nation in Montana and a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, who along with four other interns funded through the Mitacs Indigenous Pathways initiative, are working with Sara Child, Professor of Indigenous Education at North Island College.

The Challenge

With 75 percent of Canada’s Indigenous languages facing language loss, the Sanyakola Foundation is setting a precedent for language revitalization by developing a community-based approach to learning that honours Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.

The Solution

The Sanyakola Foundation is fueling language revitalization efforts through collaboration with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, summer camp programs, and by developing a voice-to-text mobile app that will be able to teach Kwak’wala.

The Outcome

With Mitacs’s long-term commitment, Sanyakola’s groundbreaking research could revolutionize the approach to how speech recognition systems work and train AI to recognize global Indigenous languages.

Innovative initiative takes a unique approach to language revitalization that honours Indigenous knowledges

An Indigenous-led research team at the Sanyakola Foundation, situated in Port Hardy, B.C. has initiated a multi-faceted, collaborative effort to recover Kwak’wala. Led by Sara Child, a professor of Indigenous Education at North Island College, the Sanyakola Foundation is undertaking work that involves Kwakwaka’wakw Elders and Knowledge Keepers and is engaging a younger generation in its work. 

Launched in 2017, the Sanyakola Foundation project to recover Kwak’wala was one of the first projects to be approved under Mitacs’s initiative in 2020.

Though well documented, Kwak’wala is “dangling by a very slender thread and needs to be ‘woken up,’” said Child, a Kwagu’ł community member. “This can be supported by tapping into the memories of Elders and transcribing hours upon hours of translated tapes, videos and books from archives into the official writing system adopted for Kwak’wala,” she added. 

Child believes that by building revitalizing Indigenous languages, she can help a new generation build a connection to the past and the traditional values and beliefs of Indigenous communities. 

“Indigenous languages are medicine for our people and their revitalization is vital to our individual and collective wellness and the wellness of the earth,” she said, adding that her interest in Indigenous language was piqued as a young child, when she saw how proud it made her grandparents to hear her family speak it. 

Interconnectedness and research 

What sets the research team’s approach apart is their understanding that the language is tied to the land and wellness, meaning it requires a different approach than conventional Western teaching methods. For example, Kwak’wala is best understood when undertaking the cultural activities that accompany the language’s concept, such as “respecting the ocean” by expressing gratitude while performing a cleanse. 

“Language revitalization isn’t just about learning to speak forgotten words. It’s about learning how to look at the entire world through an Indigenous lens,” said Child. 

Facing challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic 

The four Mitacs interns involved in the project are currently working in consultation with Elders to build a framework for what teaching through in a Kwakwaka’wakw lens will look like. 

When the pandemic derailed their plans to meet with Elders in person, they went online, working to build their own fluency and continuing to build capacity for immersive language summer camps that will hopefully be held outdoors once again on Kwakwaka’wakw homelands later in 2022. 

Technology key to revitalization 

Their strategy also includes developing leading-edge voice-to-text technology, such as a mobile app capable of identifying everyday items from pictures snapped on a smartphone, with Kwak’wala words pronounced in the voice of an Elder. 

Child explained that the primary challenge for Indigenous languages in technology is that many voice-to-text technologies are developed for English, yet Indigenous languages are verb-based and therefore function very differently from English. That means the researchers are forced to develop their own recognition system from scratch. 

“If we break the code for building voice-to-text technology for Kwak’wala — and I’m sure we will — the impact will be absolutely phenomenal across the globe.” 

For Mitacs intern Caroline Running Wolf, a citizen of the Apsáalooke Nation (Crow Nation) in Montana and a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, the opportunity to work on the Sanyakola project is not only helping to further her PhD research but is fulfilling her passion to remove barriers to Indigenous language learning. 

Now, building on the team’s work to deliver automatic speech recognition for Kwak’wala, she aims to use immersive technologies like virtual or augmented reality to support Indigenous language revitalization by making learning more accessible. 

“We’re developing a completely new approach to how speech recognition systems work, training AI to recognize sounds it’s never heard before. I wouldn’t know how else we could have done this if it hadn’t been for the support of Mitacs.” 

Candice Loring, Mitacs Business Development Director, Indigenous Community Engagement, says the Sanyakola project sets a benchmark for what industry, academia, and Indigenous community collaboration can look like. “Indigenous community engagement is much more than transactional — it’s relationship building,” she said. “Language is so intrinsically tied to our culture that the loss of language is the loss of culture. It’s critical that we work on saving these languages before they’re lost.” 

Extending her thanks to Mitacs, Child shared: “Gilakas’la gaxa’akus a’ekakila gaxano’xw. Thank you for taking care of us on the journey that brought us here. These words my mother taught me. They help me to express my eternal gratitude to the Mitacs team for believing in us and supporting our journey to wellness and recovery of the vital voices of our ancestors.” 

Learn more about how Mitacs is supporting Indigenous innovation in Canada: 

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

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