Connecting language and technology

November 20, 2014
Raina Delisle

Nicolle Bourget knows what it takes to successfully implement technology. A former computer programmer and now a program manager at Telus, she has been involved in a number of technology implementations. Success, she finds, comes down to culture, processes and people. The technology itself is secondary.

“When you implement technology, there’s a whole change management process that goes along with it,” say Bourget, a graduate of the Doctor of Social Sciences program. “You educate individuals as to what it does, why it’s important, why they might want to use it and how it’s going to help in the long run.”

Bourget’s interest in technology implementation inspired her to explore First Nations language revitalization programs and how technology had been incorporated into them. She focused her dissertation on the Halq’eméylem language, a Coast Salish language spoken by the Stó:lō people of B.C.’s Fraser Valley, where Bourget lives. Halq’eméylem is very close to extinction. Bourget’s objective with her research was to determine if information and communication technology (ICT)could be successfully integrated within an Indigenous language program.

Bourget started her exploration by taking Halq’eméylem 101 through the University of the Fraser Valley and familiarizing herself with the technologies used by the community. Linguists and community members began recording the Halq’eméylem language in audio format in the 1960s. ICT was introduced into the language revitalization efforts in the mid-1990s with the creation of CD-ROM games and the community continued to actively incorporate ICT into their language programs. Also being used is First Voices, a group of web-based tools and services designed to support Aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching and culture revitalization. Today, applications supporting Halq’eméylem can be used across multiple devices; however, the language has not been revitalized.

Bourget found that ICT can be used to archive, document and support language learning and teaching, but it cannot revitalize nor save a language; this must be done by communities and individuals. While ICT can support learning endangered languages, it will not bring about fluency. Regardless, Indigenous peoples around the world continue to put money and effort into ICT for language revitalization.

“Within this particular community, there’s a lot of technology that’s been incorporated and it’s helping with a base learning – such as learning to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and the prayers – but it’s not helping with conversation at all,” Bourget says. “There’s very, very limited conversation that’s currently happening with the use of the technologies. There’s significant effort that needs to be done to get individuals to a level of language in which they can then sit down and use the technology to further these conversations.”

Linguists estimate that 50 to 90 per cent of the 6,000 to 7,000 known languages in the world will disappear in the 21st century, Bourget points out, unless we do something about it. 

“Aboriginals within Canada have lost their language because of early government assimilation policies,” she says. “It’s really been stolen from them. What it’s left them with is a community that doesn’t have a language. Instead there is a loss of knowledge transfer between the grandparents and the young kids today.”

“Dr. Nicolle Bourget exemplifies the scholar/practitioner ideal in the Doctor of Social Sciences Program,” says program head Dr. Bernard Schissel. “Her research blended expertise in information and communication technology with a profound devotion to making ICT relevant to language and cultural sustainability. She not only produced an excellent piece of applied research but also devoted herself to understanding a new language and culture to make sure that her research was both sensitive and relevant.”

Bourget notes that language loss has had far reaching and unexpected impacts on Indigenous peoples, but that revitalizing a language can heal and bring communities together.

“Technology is an important part of the puzzle, but it’s only one piece and without structured conversation around how the technology can be used and continue to evolve and support the language, it remains simply a piece of the puzzle and does not advance the language.”