How Materials Development is Different for Endangered Languages
Over the last few weeks, I participated in a course at the University of British Columbia called “Materials Development for Indigenous Language Learning and Teaching” taught by Dr. Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla. Dr. Galla is from Hawai’i and has been involved in the Hawaiian language revitalization movement. Much of her work has focussed on the use of technology to support Indigenous language learning, and this was the theme of the course.
Why focus on Indigenous languages?
Maybe you wonder why a course would focus on curriculum development for Indigenous languages specifically instead of for all languages. There are a few important reasons for this. First, Indigenous languages are often structurally different from other languages. It is not simply a matter of replicating what has worked in other contexts, because many Indigenous languages have unique structures that are best learned in a different sequence from other languages.
There is also the fact that there is a huge lack of resources available for Indigenous language learners. These days, you can find thousands of websites and print resources dedicated to languages like Spanish or German, but this is not the case for Indigenous languages. And for languages that are severely endangered, the need to create resources now is urgent.
But mass producing resources for Indigenous languages is not always possible, or even desired. Many Indigenous languages are oral languages, and how they are written and represented in text is a subject of debate among communities, as is the question of who has the right to give or receive certain aspects of the language. The importance of materials development by Indigenous peoples themselves, and for authentication of learning resources, cannot be stressed enough. Even publishers with good intentions risk stereotyping Indigenous peoples and cultures in their publications, or violating sacred traditions, if authentic consultation and collaboration does not occur.
The role of multimodality
Multimodality refers to the use of different forms of media that engage multiple senses. In language learning, this often means the use of audio and visual components to accompany reading material. This can be as simple as including interesting images along with a text, or can involve the use of audiobooks, videos, or interactive computer games. Multimodality is important in Indigenous language learning because it can help learners focus on the oral (and aural) nature of the language. It is also a good way for non-fluent parents to help bring more language into their homes for their children. And with the constant advancement and access to technology in many parts of the world, multimodal activities are becoming ever more important for engaging young learners.
Simple tools go a long way
The course at UBC focussed on using technology tools that are free and familiar to most users, such as Microsoft Publisher and PowerPoint, to create simple yet engaging learning resources. While these may not be the most cutting edge technologies out there, the benefits to using such platforms is that they are often available for free, easy to learn, and can be accessed across computers, old and new alike. Many Indigenous languages are spoken in remote communities without access to new technologies, or even regular access to electricity. These technologies are inexpensive to use and require minimal training, greatly increasing access and potential reach. Dr. Galla often reminded us that when it comes to technology:
“Effectiveness is only as good as its access and availability.”
My classmates and I were all able to produce beautiful books using Microsoft Publisher, as well as interactive language learning games using PowerPoint in a short period of time and with minimal training. More advanced technologies can certainly be effective, as long as access to them and appropriate training accompany their development.
The need for collaboration
It is important for Indigenous language speakers themselves to lead the development and authentication of resources to support their languages. Working with knowledge keepers such as elder language speakers is important for authentication of materials, and resource development can be a way to bring community members of all ages together. The relationship can be mutually beneficial as tech-savvy youngsters help elders to learn the technology as the elders help the young people to learn the language. Non-Indigenous linguists, writers, designers, and others can (and arguably should) collaborate on and facilitate materials development, but always based on the needs and interests of the language community.