UBC Linguistics grad develops dictionary app to support Indigenous language revitalization



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Aidan Pine (BA '16) is the founder of Mother Tongues, an organization providing open-source tools for language revitalization

By Joel Bentley

When Aidan Pine’s interest in Indigenous languages was piqued in a linguistics elective course at Concordia University, his professor asked him, “What are you doing in Montreal?” If Aidan wanted to pursue this field, his professor thought he should be studying in British Columbia, where 34 First Nations languages are still spoken.

“I totally fell in love with linguistics and uncovering the reality of this place I called home—a home that has such a vexed and complex history.”
BA '16

At the time, Aidan was unaware of the immense scope of language diversity in his home province. There are at least 93 different dialects spoken within 34 Indigenous languages, all of which are endangered. National Geographic named the Northwest Pacific Plateau one of the top 5 “language hotspots” in the world.

Aidan took his professor’s advice and returned home to enroll in UBC’s linguistics program, where his interest in Indigenous languages grew steadily throughout his degree. “I totally fell in love with linguistics and uncovering the reality of this place I called home — a home that has such a vexed and complex history.”

Although there were several sophisticated dictionaries available for specific Indigenous languages, few were affordable. Many of the available online Indigenous dictionaries were created by for-profit companies who charged as much as $50,000 to develop them. “That irked me,” says Aidan. “You look at a company and see how many dictionaries they were making at that price, essentially re-using the same code that they had written. It’s another form of exploitation, unfortunately.”

A model of ethnical partnership

Aidan wanted to find a way to use technology as a tool for ethically partnering with Indigenous people. “We (settlers) can really only work on the margins,” he says. “But if I can develop a tool that amplifies rather than drowns out Indigenous efforts, that’s an effective strategy.”

So he set to work building the technology that would become Mother Tongues, a suite of dictionary applications for web and mobile platforms that is free for anyone to use.

The beauty of the Mother Tongues software is its flexibility. It’s open source so anyone can adapt it, and if you want to add words and definitions to the dictionary, you can simply enter terms into a spreadsheet. No coding knowledge is required. It can be used for any language, and is available on both Android and iOS, which means it’s available to 99% of smart phone users.

Before graduation, Aidan managed to build a working prototype. Within a few years, users across the globe—from Canada to Japan to Nepal—have added an estimated 100,000 entries to the platform.

“He went from a thought project to an implementation project in the course of one year,” says Mark Turin, who co-supervised Aidan’s work while serving as Chair of the First Nations Endangered Languages Program at UBC. The speed and scope of what Aidan accomplished as an undergraduate still gets Mark excited. “He’s an incredibly talented young man.” By the time Aidan graduated, the tool was ready to be used. Now he needed partners to build out the Gitxsanimx̲ dictionary.

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Aidan Pine collaborated with Gitxsanimx̲ speaker Thelma Blackstock to develop his dictionary app, Mother Tongues.

Collaboration with the Gitksan Community

The summer after Aidan graduated from UBC, he travelled to Gitanmaax (Hazelton) to board with Thelma Blackstock, a pillar of the Gitksan community. They quickly became friends. Aidan grew up without knowing his grandmothers, and Thelma filled that void. They’d been introduced by Jeanne and Barbara, Thelma’s sisters, who worked with the UBC linguistics program to research and document the Gitksan language in writing.

Jeanne and Thelma’s childhoods were a picture in contrasts. Growing up in the 1930s and 40s, Jeanne witnessed English teachers suppressing the use of Gitxsanimx̲ in class, punishing classmates who showed defiance. She resolved to comply, and it cost her not only her ability to speak her language, but her pride. “You don’t know how to speak our language,” her Gitksan classmates taunted. “You’re broken. Broken Gitksan!”

Thelma, on the other hand, was kept out of school by a host of illnesses throughout her childhood. Cared for by her grandmother, she learned Gitxsanimx̲ through conversation. Years later, she taught her sister how to speak the language, and later Aidan too.

But more than teaching Aidan the language, Thelma helped him make connections for collaboration. Dictionary projects are massive undertakings that can stretch on for years. The Oxford English Dictionary, to use a famous example, took 70 years to complete its first volume, and is continually updated. With the Mother Tongues technology in place, a team was formed: three Gitxsanimx̲ speakers in Vancouver (including Jeanne and Barbara) working with a UBC research group, and another half a dozen speakers in Gitksan territory actively contributing.

Gitxsanimx̲ is particularly complex. Gitksan literally means “people of the Skeena River,” and the Nation stretches over 33,000 square kilometres of territory surrounding the river and its basin. With the Gitksan people spread over such a vast region, a continuum of dialects formed over time.

While the dictionary continues to be a work in progress, a preliminary version has now been published through Mother Tongues, which, thanks to its open-sourced flexibility, is now being used in over thirty different languages, including more than 15 BC First Nations languages. It’s since been adopted by FirstVoices, an online suite of tools aiding the revitalization of BC’s Indigenous languages, which are at a crucial crossroads: native speakers like Thelma are aging. The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to draw attention to “the urgent need to revitalize and promote them at national and international levels.” If the next generation is going to inherit and renew these languages, they will need tools to help them.

Supporting a New Generation of Speakers

After publishing the initial offering of the Gitxsanimx̲ language dictionary through Mother Tongues, Aidan was recruited by the National Research Council to research and develop digital tools for language revitalization as part of the Indigenous Language Technology project. Following his ethical principles, he made clear his desire for any technology he helped build be open source. They readily agreed. He also initiated the forming of an Indigenous Advisory Committee, which now has 12 Indigenous members from across Canada who advise and direct the project. Through that council he met Tessa Erickson, one of the committee’s first Youth Ambassadors.

Tessa is a member of the Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation, but she isn’t fluent in Dakelh, their Indigenous language. Fluent speakers are rare in her community, but her father taught her what little he knew. Now 17, Tessa is taking matters into her own hands. In addition to using the language tools provided by FirstVoices, she helped instigate work on a Dakelh dictionary app, using the skills she learned through a coding boot camp organized by the First Nations Technology Council.

When skeptics say that this generation isn’t interested in learning Indigenous languages, Aidan points to Tessa. “Here’s somebody who’s spending her summers, for free—not being paid to learn how to do this stuff, because she recognizes the power in language, and the power it has in her community.”

Tessa sees the technology that Aidan and the NRC are developing as a bridge to learning language. “I feel like targeting a younger audience using technology to pique interest is going to encourage new speakers,” she says.

But confidence can be a huge barrier. “I was scared of messing up or saying something wrong so I just chose to not speak,” says Tessa. Apps like Mother Tongues work at first to build up a learner’s basic knowledge to the point where beginners like Tessa are confident enough to have conversations with language mentors. Then, for more adept speakers, apps serve as an archive of the language. With so many learners living in diaspora, app dictionaries can help fill the void that distance from community creates.

In addition to her work on the Dakelh dictionary app, Tessa is coordinating summer camps where students are immersed in their native language, in hopes that they “will encourage a generation of new speakers.” It’s one of many examples of the language revival happening across Canada. Aidan rattles off half a dozen examples that refute the notion that these languages are “dying”: there is rapid change stirring within Indigenous communities to restore and revitalize these languages. And the data backs it up: the 2016 Census shows a rise in Aboriginal language acquisition as a second language, up to 26% from 18% in 1996.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

In the summer of 2018, Aidan once again found himself in Gitanmaax living and working with Thelma. In exchange for accommodation, Aidan was tasked with the cooking. But often, he would emerge from his bedroom in the morning to find she had made him eggs, toast, and tea instead. “Guu wok̲ ‘niin!” (sleepy head!), she would say.

“Thelma was truly one of the most genuine, inspiring and kindest people I’ve ever met,” says Aidan. “I loved her very much, and I felt very loved by her as well.”

“She thought the world of Aidan,” says Jeanne. “She loved his cooking too.”

That summer, at the age of 90, she passed away. As the funeral preparations were made, Aidan helped however he could. “He did everything a Gitxsan person would do,” says Jeanne. “He was at the graveside. He had big tears for Thelma too… and he was grave digging as well.” She pauses to wipe away tears.

“I miss her,” she says. “She was a role model for everybody.”

This work can’t be done alone. “When you’re contributing to a project like this, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants” says Aidan. Thelma, a living dictionary of the Gitxsanimx̲ language, a giant in her community, has passed away. But the tool she helped build for the next generation lives on.