Cutting-edge technology meets traditional culture

A Screenshot of the Yukon Native Language Centre's website.

A twenty-first century tool is enabling people anywhere in the world to learn how to speak, read and write a Yukon native language. The website of the Yukon Native Language Centre now allows anyone with a computer and web browser to work their way through a year's worth of lessons, complete with sound, text, and graphics.

You can, for example, click on a sentence written in the Gwich'in language and hear it spoken in the Peel River dialect by fluent speaker and YNLC staff member Mary Jane Kunnizzi. The English translation is also provided.

The lessons move through the months, covering such seasonal topics as berry picking, hunting, and tanning hides as well as grammatical topics such as verbs and possessives.

And they're accompanied by brightly coloured illustrations so that users can associate the spoken and written versions of the language with the activity.

"The lessons follow the curriculum for the school native language programs, so parents could learn our language at home while their children are learning it in school," says Ms. Kunnizzi.

For now the full set of lessons is available only in Gwich'in, with a partial set available in Southern Tutchone, but the website will eventually offer lessons in all eight Yukon languages.

The on-line conversational language lessons offer several advantages over YNLC's language booklet and tape sets which are currently in widespread use.

Each sentence can be clicked to hear the speaker's voice, and that sentence can be repeated as often as necessary.

It's also much easier to find different topics and sentences through the menu bar than trying to fast-forward through a tape.

And of course you can access the lessons from anywhere, so you could study September's lessons in Old Crow and October's while you're in Whitehorse or Vancouver.

Another advantage is that these lessons are created with web-based tools and can be burnt to CDs and played on computers with internet browser software.

Although modern technology has the potential to revolutionize how language teaching and learning is delivered, it also creates new technical challenges.

"For close to a decade YNLC has used technology to create teaching and learning materials that are really user-friendly, and that encourage people to engage with the language," says Centre Director John Ritter.

"Now we're having to respond to changes in technology to maintain our goal of providing those materials in a format that people can easily use."

This includes digitizing the sound on the cassette tapes in the language booklet and tape sets to create CDs that people can play in their vehicles.

The Centre has more than 25 versions of these language booklet and tape sets, all of which will eventually be available in CD format and many also on the web.

Another technical challenge is connected with the nature of Yukon First Nations languages themselves.

"The aboriginal languages in our area are some of the most phonetically complex on the face of the earth," Ritter explains.

"To write these languages accurately you must use accents, as in French and German, but there are more of them, and often you need more than one accent over or below a given letter.

"The technical challenge is to be able to handle that in word processing and on the web."

The Centre originally worked with a commercial company to develop a special Yukon font that would represent the languages accurately on both Macintosh and Windows platforms.

That enabled the Centre, starting in the mid-nineties, to create documents in the standard alphabets for each of Yukon's aboriginal languages. This led to the development of print and computer storybooks for classroom use.

But the commercially available font won't work on the newer computer operating systems or on the web, so the challenge now is to create new font software that will.

Computer specialist and staff linguist Doug Hitch is in the process of developing a font that will allow the Yukon languages to be read accurately on the web.

"The new software we're developing will allow us to display our characters on any computer anywhere via the web," says Hitch.

"The software is installed on the web server so that someone in a different country using a different browser and a different computer platform can still see the specialized characters displayed accurately."

Once the new font software is available, the Centre will also be able to make all the existing computer storybooks available on-line.

"We can use this technology to create new materials, but we can also go back to materials we developed earlier and update them," says Hitch.

"We are now developing new materials for the web rather than for a specific computer operating system."

And with more and more people interested in learning about traditional culture, including how to speak their own native language, the use of the web is a logical next step in the development of language lessons.

"The development of the web has provided new opportunities for improving the materials available for learning Yukon languages," notes Hitch.

The YNLC website also allows users to "meet" many of those speakers and elders involved with language instruction through the Yukon.

All the native language instructors are profiled with photographs and short biographies, as well as YNLC staff and elders who have played a key role in language promotion.

The website functions as a comprehensive resource about Yukon native languages and about elements of Yukon First Nations cultures.

It provides background material about each of the languages including sample sentences and alphabets, an interactive map showing where they are spoken, a section on place names and their significance, and information on the Centre's programs and publications.

Ritter points out that having a lot of the specifics already on the website means that people can be directed there easily for an overview of Yukon languages.

"It's a tool that we've tried to make as user-friendly as possible," he says.

"It's all part of our goal of increasing the visibility and accessibility of the Centre and its services."

The web address of the Yukon Native Language Centre is ynlc.ca