21st Century Tools for Indigenous Languages

About Our Partnership

In response to the well-documented threats to Indigenous cultures and languages, this Partnership project will support the revitalization and sustained daily use of multiple Indigenous languages by developing modern technological tools and resources for these languages in collaboration with their respective communities. The project builds on previous SSHRC Partnership Development (2014-2017), Connections Outreach (2016-2018) and other grants to multiple partners which have funded earlier work on e.g. Algonquian languages (Plains Cree, Odawa, Northern East Cree, Blackfoot, Arapaho), Dene languages (Tsuut’ina, Upper Tanana) and others (Haida). This project is built on a foundation of active involvement by Indigenous communities, ensuring that the development of language technological applications will be driven by their needs.

Our team of documentary and computational linguists, as well as Indigenous communities, will develop a range of essential software resources and applications, including: (1) web-based dictionaries, (2) searchable databases of spoken recordings and written texts, (3) spell-checkers, and (4) computer-aided language learning applications. These tools make use of language technology to be able to handle the complex word structure of most Indigenous languages. They will enable the fullest mobilization of linguistic knowledge and materials from, to, within and across Indigenous communities. The project will also build capacity among Indigenous language instructors in the best use of these tools in community-based revitalization efforts, and provide substantially expanded functionalities for existing language technology resources (e.g. Algonquian Dictionary Infrastructure).

We have piloted short and intensive workshops that allow documentary linguists and communities to work with computational linguists in developing prototype versions of these tools. This Partnership project will see these tools developed into full-scale end-user versions that can be used in language instruction and by the broader community. This will allow for gathering learner feedback from communities for the steady improvement of the tools. Feedback gathering and tool sharing are also done through the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI) who offers various courses to Indigenous people and communities striving to revitalize their language. This collaboration with CILLDI facilitate the user training in the use of 21C tools, in addition to collect immediate and relevant feedback.

Scholars within our research team have established relationships with a range of Indigenous communities. Initially, however, we aim to build on proven relationships with two communities, Plains Cree and Tsuut’ina. Previous SSHRC-funded research resulted in a formal Memorandum of Partnership between UAlberta and the Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission (MESC) covering language documentation and potential development of language technologies for Plains Cree. In preparation for this Partnership, relationship building has also continued with the Tsuut’ina Office of the Language Commissioner (TOLC). Relations with MESC and TOLC connect our researchers directly with the community members tasked with language maintenance and instruction. At the same time, the extensive personnel resources that we dedicate for accelerating software development and linguistic modeling for our two spearhead languages will also provide substantial support for the continued development of prototype tools for the other Indigenous languages we already work with, as well as the creation of such tools for new languages.

Building on established relationships and previous research, our Partnership will facilitate innovative collaboration between documentary and computational linguists and Indigenous communities. The result will be an invaluable contribution to the revitalization and sustained daily use of multiple Indigenous languages in Canada.