Tuesday September 02, 2014

Native language learns to talk tech

Language of Shuswap Nation has promising future thanks to modern technology
Catherine Litt

Richard Billy speaks to reporters at the launch of a digital app that helps people learn the Secwepemc language.

It is a complex language thousands of years old, spoken mostly by elders and rarely heard outside traditional settings.

Secwepemctsín, the language of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) Nation, was once in danger of becoming a lost language.

And, while only about 150 Secwépemc people speak it fluently today, never before in its history has Secwepemctsín had a stronger footing or a more promising future — thanks to the efforts of a cultural education centre and the marvels of modern technology.

On Monday, teachers and elders of Secwépemc Cultural Education Society in Kamloops officially launched the Secwépemc Language application for iOS-based mobile devices.

"It's really exciting to see," said Mona Jules, a Secwépemc elder.

Jules is one of the few fluent speakers of Secwepemctsín in B.C. and one of a handful of people whose voices are heard on the new app.

She is also part of a multi-generational group determined to renew the language, which was nearly lost when residential schools prohibited aboriginal languages.

"To me, the importance of preserving our language, it's a part of our identity," said Julie Peters, a 25-year-old student from the Canim Lake Band.

"And I feel like, in order to know who we really are, we have to know part of our mother language."

Peters is learning Secwepemctsín in earnest after spending years off the reserve speaking only English.

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Listen to Richard Billy speak his language and give translations:

* * *

Fifty years her senior, Richard Billy's story is similar. He learned Secwepemctsín as a child on the Bonaparte Reserve but lost much of the language as a youth in residential school and as an adult living off reserve.

Billy, who turns 75 today, believes there are many elders who still know the language but have remained silent because of their experience in residential schools. He hopes the renewed interest in Secwepemctsín, brought about by the new app, will encourage them to speak the language.

"If we can get them away from being silent, if we can get them out of there, then we can move on," he said.

The new app is available free on iTunes and provides a media-rich dictionary and phrase collection with audio recordings.

Among the voices are those of the late May Drainey and Cindy Williams, two elders who spoke fluent Secwepemctsín and whose language skills would have been lost forever if it weren't for Secwépemc Cultural Education Society's archival efforts.

Their voices are now part of an everlasting legacy, one that has the power to return the Secwepemctsín language to its rightful place among the Secwépemc people — a place it hasn't been in decades.

To download the app, visit iTunes or go online to www.secwepemc.org, www.fpcc.ca or www.firstvoices.com for links to the download.



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