VR The Key To Revolutionizing Indigenous Languages

By Ben Hamill - February 04 2022

VR The Key To Revolutionizing Indigenous Languages

Some would say that certain fringe languages are doomed to be forgotten. But not if Sara Child has anything to say about it. The researcher based at Vancouver Island is working to revitalize Kwak’wala, a language that is currently on the verge of being entirely forgotten. It is estimated that only around 140, across more than 12 First Nations, are still able to fluently speak it. More alarming is that those that can speak it are presently in their 70s and 80s.

Child is a professor in Indigenous education at the North Island College. She has made it a life ambition to preserve languages, going as far as to establish the Sanyakola Foundation. The sole purpose of the foundation is to help First Nation elders effectively pass on language, thereby ensuring that the words remain a part of history.

But saving Kwak’wala is no small task.

Modern Technology To The Rescue

Child explained that decades of disconnect, combined with dramatic lifestyle changes, have played a role in limiting Kwak’wala. She elaborated that currently the language remains trapped in a world of memories but added hopefully that the words may still find life. She went on to stress that countless hours have been spent attempting to resurrect the native words but admitted that the task has been a difficult one.

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However, it seems as if she may finally have found a solution. Numerous anthropological recordings of Kwak’wala exist, with the real trick being to extract the language, make sense of it, and therefore allow it to be passed on. This task would otherwise be daunting, were it not for recent artificial intelligence (AI) advancements.

Saving A Lifetime Of Effort

Child explained that she is currently working to develop a revolutionary AI system. With the system functional, she stressed, a job that would otherwise have taken a team of researchers decades may now take just a few years. The key then, she concluded, is to eventually teach the words to those that are willing to learn them.

Enter Caroline Running Wolf. The PhD student at the University of British Columbia is already hard at work designing immersive educational technology. The system is pioneering a new way for teaching languages, including Kwak’wala.

Together the pair are leaning into helping soon to be lost culture, ensuring that it stays alive. By extension the possibilities of their research may just help revolutionize education on a fundamental level. Where their project goes remains to be seen, but this could just be the shot in the arm that traditional education has been looking for.