Revitalizing Indigenous languages using digital tools

What began as a simple spreadsheet evolved into a language database accessible to all

When Annalena Felber made the journey from Germany to the University of Saskatchewan in the summer of 2017 to work with Assistant Professor Marguerite Koole, the pair had an entirely different summer research project planned.

Marguerite Koole, an assistant professor in Educational Technology and Design at the University of Saskatchewan, had initially wanted to work with a Mitacs Globalink student on exploring Indigenous peoples’ relationships to their languages by conducting interviews. Through Mitacs’s program, Koole was matched with Annalena Felber, a linguistics student interested in learning about different worldviews and how they connect to different languages.

Initially, Annalena did background research on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the threats they currently face around losing their languages. It quickly became apparent to her that there are very few digital resources available for teaching Indigenous languages, which is crucial to keep them alive.

These digital resources are not simply online dictionaries, as Indigenous languages do not translate word for word into English. There are phrases in Indigenous languages that reflect day-to-day practices within the culture, and there are simply no words in English to adequately encapsulate these practices. Annalena began to do detailed research into all available online tools, building an Excel spreadsheet for this information. These tools include links to websites, different interactive applications, and video and audio resources.

Building the wîcêhtowin project

As the summer went on and the list began to grow, the idea that this list could be turned into a database and made accessible to everyone germinated. Thus began the wîcêhtowin project, a website where students, teachers, and anyone interested in Indigenous language revitalization can locate the tools and resources available. Currently, there are over 150 resources available on the website in 74 different Indigenous languages.

Both Annalena and Professor Koole speak passionately about the identity that is attached to language, and the importance of preservation. As Annalena says, “There’s a perspective attached to language, and so when that language gets lost, so too does that unique perspective. Language is so much more than just words. There is knowledge embedded about the world and communication that goes beyond the words used, and if the language dies, that knowledge gets lost.”

Koole echoes these sentiments, saying, “I’m not sure you can untangle language and identity. If your language is disappearing, there’s an awful lot of identity that disappears as well.” As Koole aptly points out, Indigenous language was one of the targets of colonization. “By stripping away language and aiming to homogenize a community, you are stripping away cultural ideas and practices. Putting efforts into preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages is a way of preserving culture.”

The growth and legacy of wîcêhtowin

Even though Annalena has since completed her summer research and returned to Germany, the wîcêhtowin database continues to thrive over two years later. Reflecting on her time in Saskatchewan, she says, “It was so exciting to see the project grow and come to life. It began as just a simple list that I was building. The experience was different than anything I had learned in Germany, and really opened my mind. It was extremely influential in my life. It was so much more than just a summer project.”

Professor Koole, who is still actively developing the database and generating new resources for language learning, is very happy that this project has continued to grow. “As professors, we have our classes, our committee work and all of our other projects, and it can really take a couple of years for the work we do to bear fruit. This experience has really shown that if you stick with these projects, wonderful things can come from them.”

Annalena and Professor Koole remain in touch, and Professor Koole keeps Annalena up to date as the wîcêhtowin project grows, even inviting her to an academic conference to present their research. Professor Koole emphasizes the importance of making the extra effort to involve students in research, saying, “I would encourage anyone who is fortunate enough to hire a Mitacs student to take the time to get to know them, and to really involve them in the research and get them truly excited about the project they are doing.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, in the summer of 2019, Mitacs was pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; the China Scholarship Council; Campus France; the German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.​

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