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Saving Secwepemctsin: There's an app for that

For more than 4,000 years, Secwepemctsin speakers passed down an epic tale of a group of brothers who traversed their territory, naming places they found and preparing the land for future generations.
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For more than 4,000 years, Secwepemctsin speakers passed down an epic tale of a group of brothers who traversed their territory, naming places they found and preparing the land for future generations.

Now, a team from Simon Fraser University is hoping the story, along with some new technology, can help save the language which once preserved it.

The team's app, Secwepemc Story, will introduce readers to the tale of Tlli7sa and his brothers in both English and Secwepemctsin, the language of the Shuswap Nation.

The program, set to launch next week, will also feature full-colour illustrations, audio recordings, language lessons and glossaries.

To create the app, SFU First Nations Language Centre director Marianne Ignace went back to notes made in the region in the early 1900s by ethnographer James Teit.

While Teit didn't set down the stories he was told by Secwepemc elders in their original language, and thought the project predated most voice recording technology, Ignace said Teit's work was extremely detailed.

"So there's this wealth of really interesting oral traditions that have philosophical, educational, environmental messages that in a way also represent history that goes back thousands of years," she said.

"But, for future generations we didn't have them available in the language."

Ignace set out to re-translate the stories, working with other Secwepemctsin speakers to find words that would not only be grammatically correct, but also bring some poetry to the tale.

Tlli7sa's story, split into 18 parts for the app, features a number of familiar locations, from Shuswap and Kamloops lakes to Cache Creek and the High Bar Canyon on the Fraser River, where the brothers are eventually transformed into stone pillars, still visible to this day.

Along the way, the brothers vanquish what Ignace refers to as "people-eating powers" -- making the places they visit safe for those who follow.

The interactive storybook is the first of a number of indigenous language apps the Simon Fraser University centre hopes to roll out this fall.

While the Tlli7sa app takes a cultural focus, many of the other programs are language-learning courses, featuring quizzes, vocabulary and grammar lessons and conversational practices.

Ignace said the language centre drew on work from another SFU department, which had spent millions developing a cutting-edge way to teach the Greek language.

Those apps, which are in the testing phase, will allow users to learn several dialects used by the Haida, Sm'algyax and Secwepemc, among others.

While the language centre has a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to work with 12 languages in particular, Ignace said none of B.C.'s 32 indigenous languages are in great health.

In the case of Secwepemctsin, Ignace said there are about 100 fluent speakers who grew up using the language at home.

Most are 60 or older.

Though she and her husband were able to pass the language to their children, Ignace said that experience has become less common.

"Many parents aren't able to do that because the parents' generation, or even younger grandparents these days, were denied the opportunity to learn their language," she said.

"In fact, many of them had it literally beaten out of them in the residential school system."

Preserving First Nations languages isn't just about individual words, Igance said. It's also about ways of thinking that are't necessarily captured by the English language.

"Secwepemctsin, for example, has just this amazing wealth of knowledge about the land and social relations, about connections with the whole universe that are expressed in the language," she said.

"And it has poetry of how to talk about one another in really good and unique ways. If we lose our language, those ways of viewing the world and the land and one another are lost." DID YOU KNOW? Secwepemctsin contains the cultural, ecological and historical knowledge that includes: values, beliefs, rituals, songs, stories, social and political structures and spirituality of the people.

The Secwepemc view all aspects of their knowledge, including language, as vitally linked to the land.

This knowledge, passed down to the next generations orally, contained the teachings necessary for maintenance of Secwepemc culture and identity.

Secwepemctsin (language of the Secwepemc) is one of the Interior Salish languages of the large Salishan language family.

The Secwepemctsin sound system consists of 43 consonants and 5 vowels.

Many of these sounds are not found in the English language and are difficult to learn.

The present writing system for Secwepemctsin was developed by a Dutch linguist (Kuipers) approximately 30 years ago.

Until that time, Secwepemctsin remained an oral language.

The Kuipers system of writing Secwpemctsin is inaccurate because the vowel sounds do not represent the Secwepemc sounds.

The international alphabet system much more accurately represents the Secwepemc sounds.

-- from landoftheshuswap.com