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This Aboriginal Keyboard App Is Helping Preserve Indigenous Languages

With FirstVoices Keyboards, “you can text an elder now.”

Across Canada, many of the more than 60 Indigenous languages spoken are considered endangered. Native groups are looking for all kinds of ways to save their dying tongues, and have called for official recognition of Aboriginal languages—all 60 of them—alongside English and French.

Technology is playing an increasingly powerful role in language preservation. In May, a new language keyboard app for Apple and Android, the first of its kind, was launched by the First Peoples' Cultural Council, a First Nations-run crown corporation in BC. Called FirstVoices Keyboards, the free app gives its users access to more than 100 Indigenous languages—spoken in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US—through specialized keyboards that can be used within email, social media, word processing and other apps on mobile phones.

The app includes languages like Atikamekw, Blackfoot, Dakelh, Gwich'in, Inuvialuktun, Māori, Skicinuwatuwewakon, and Wendat.

A download party. Image: First Peoples' Cultural Council

"The app is another strategy to help revitalize and promote the Indigenous languages," said Alex Wadsworth, who oversees FirstVoices, IT and language mapping for the First Peoples' Cultural Council.

Wadsworth spoke to me from Victoria, BC, a province where 34 First Nations languages are spoken, more than any other province or territory. But a shrinking number of fluent speakers are left, in large part because of Canada's residential school system, which, beginning in the 1880s, removed First Nation, Inuit and Métis children from their homes and forbade them to speak their languages.

It prevented generations from learning their mother tongue.

Canada still has a long way to go in confronting this ugly history, including the decimation of language. In its report into the residential school system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described Aboriginal tongues as "a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society." It calls for an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner, and federal funding for language revitalization.

Since 2001, Wadsworth has been the programmer behind FirstVoices, which includes language learning games, dictionary apps, keyboard downloads for desktops, and other web-based tools. In 2012, he and a small team of linguists and programmers launched the precursor to FirstVoices Keyboards: FirstVoices Chat.

FirstVoices Chat, created in response to First Nations youth who wanted to use their own languages to communicate online, is a texting app for Facebook Chat and Google Talk. Previously, the unique characters used in many Indigenous writing systems were not available on mobile phones and other devices. Some languages use syllabics, such as ᕆ ᐃ ᕿ ᓕ ᓐ, while others use characters, such as ƛ̓ ʷ ɣ ʔ ə ʕ x̌ .

When Apple opened up iOS to third-party keyboards, Wadsworth and his small team could start creating FirstVoices Keyboards. "Now you can use the keyboards in not just Facebook Chat, but in email and websites and whatever other apps you want to use it in," he said. "You can text an elder now."

After more than a year of work, including beta testing the app with 70 First Nations people, FirstVoices Keyboards launched May 16 with a social media campaign encouraging people to download it and tweet using their language.

Wadsworth believes the people who use the app feel a sense of empowerment, as they can now communicate with the world, using their mother tongue.

Other initiatives that use technology and aim to revitalize Indigenous languages are underway. The Singuistics app teaches the Gwich'in and Inuktitut languages of the Canadian Arctic through traditional songs. Grade 7 and 8 students in Ontario learning Ojibwe created a keyboard for syllabics. There's a colourful online learning tool for young Michif learners, a project of the Cowichan Valley Métis Association. In the prairie provinces, academics and Aboriginal organizations have collaborated to produce an online Cree dictionary, and other tools and applications are underway at the Alberta Language Technology Lab.

The FirstVoices Keyboards app is poised to grow. Since its launch, Wadsworth has heard from people working to revitalize other Indigenous languages, outside Canada, who want to see theirs added. As various groups work to save Indigenous languages, technology will continue to be a powerful tool in achieving that mission.