Macintosh & Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Tue Sep 2 19:37:30 UTC 2003

First Voices and the Mac Help Preserve Aboriginal languages

 "Two tribal school teachers" reach out to the world

English-speaking people can scarcely imagine losing their language, but
many people around the world are facing this disturbing prospect. As
transportation and telecommunication technologies make the world smaller,
they also reinforce the dominance of a few modern language groups. Regional
languages spoken by relatively small population groups, including
Aboriginal peoples, risk extinction within a few generations as young
people leave them behind.

But what if you could use the same communications technology that threatens
aboriginal languages to preserve and teach them? This possibility was not
lost on Peter Brand, a 55 year-old Australian born teacher and advocate of
Aboriginal culture. After a year of teaching Aboriginal children in his
country’s outback and several years visiting Indigenous cultures in other
parts of the world, Peter settled on Vancouver Island where he taught for
the Saanich Indian School Board for 11 years.

In 1999, Peter was teaching Grade One at LAU-WELNEW Tribal School in
Brentwood Bay. A computer lab upgrade to 25 networked iMacs enabled the
school to experiment with simple indigenous language teaching tools using
iMovie. "We had a Saanich language font created for the Mac, started
shooting video of plants and wildlife, and subtitled the footage with
Saanich words," says Brand, who worked with John Elliott, son of David
Elliott, developer of the Saanich writing system.

Pretty cool little tool

Brand spent the next spring break working with John Elliott and Ken Foster,
technology coordinator for the local public school district. The project
was an alphabet book for the Saanich language. Working in HyperStudio, they
developed video, sound and text for each of the 40 Saanich alphabet
characters. "Then we found a pretty cool little tool," recalls Brand, "a
piece of Mac shareware called Vocab. At that time Vocab was a text-only
word study application that enabled users to create word lists and present
the words in quizzes and tests."

Vocab became particularly useful at the tribal school after its developer,
Angus Gratton, added a sound feature. Many of the students used Vocab to
test themselves in the Saanich language. The ensuing months saw the
development of Vocab LanguageLab, a multimedia authoring suite as a
companion to the original Vocab application. "By this time the kids were
using iMovie to create rich media they could import into Vocab LanguageLab
along with sounds, pictures and video. It became a complete kit for
teaching indigenous languages." As Brand explains: "Many Aboriginal people
are very visual learners. We found that our Apple equipment enabled
students to do things quickly and easily with digital video. Our students
began creating media-rich learning resources for their fellow students,
written in their own unique orthography, or written language style."
Academically, Vocab LanguageLab helped to raise the children’s language
proficiency by encouraging them to spend more time working on language
related activities.

The limiting factor, however, was the fact that only a small audience was
being reached. So Brand and John Elliott began to conceive a means of
migrating their work to the web.

In March 2001, Simon Robinson, the head of the First Peoples’ Cultural
Foundation, walked into their computer lab. He said he had heard good
things, and asked for a demonstration. Brand and Elliott gave him the full
show, including their vision to make the multimedia language tools

Final tweaking of the web application

Shortly after that, Robinson invited Brand to co-ordinate the official
FirstVoices project. "The project has taken on a life of its own," Brand
elaborates. "Significant investment has been made to bring it to its
current form. We’re going through a final tweaking of the web application
after beta-testing this year, and we expect it to be in full operation by
early 2003."

What exactly is FirstVoices? It’s an easy-to-use, secure, cost-effective
web-based tool that enables any language group to develop its own authentic
and authoritative archiving and language reference resource from within its
own community. Text, sound and video can be uploaded to the FirstVoices
online database to establish rich language resources.

 "It’s extremely gratifying to witness the fruition of something you
believe in passionately," says Brand, who lauds Apple for its enthusiastic
support in Canada, the US and Australia. "I never imagined that two tribal
school teachers plugging away at something could ultimately reach out to
the world in this way. Now that FirstVoices is supported by a team of
committed language revitalization advocates, it can develop into a very
important resource for Aboriginal languages."

Brand encourages people to check out the site, now in late-stage beta, at

 For more information about Apple technology in the classroom visit the
Apple Canada web site at

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list