FirstVoices and Language Revitalization

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FirstVoices and Language Revitalization

CanadaBrentwood Bay, Canada
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

A community focused solution to documenting and revitalizing BC's endangered languages using innovative technologies and an innovative, locally driven approach.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Fluent speakers First Nations languages of B.C. are disappearing A familiar proverb tells us that "when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground". This makes the death of a language an inconceivable and irreversible loss of legacy to mankind. Yet this is what is happening here today. B.C. is considered by National Geographic to be a “hotspot” of endangered languages with 34 distinct languages and multiple dialects. The last fluent speakers are elders and they are dying. This matters not only to our First Nations communities. This matters to the health and well-being of all British Columbians.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Using readily available technologies such as laptop and tablet computers and compact digital recording equipment, First Nations language champions are engaged and inspired to learn technical skills for language documentation. As they work with elders to archive words and stories through digital and video recording, they bring hope to fluent speaking elders who are concerned that their language be passed on. But documentation alone will not revitalize a language. We understand that to truly revitalize our languages we need to make them an everyday part of young people’s lives. Our latest achievement, the FirstVoices Chat app, provides the tool for First Nations people, especially youth, to chat with friends in their own languages.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

At the W̱SÁNEĆ School Board on the Tsartlip Reserve in Central Saanich, a revolution in language revitalization is sending an inspiring message of hope to Indigenous language champions here in B.C. and around the world. At the very site of the original vision for FirstVoices, programs and activities from the immersion ‘language nest’ pre-school to adult classes bear witness to the successful blending of innovation and tradition. Preschoolers are named in SENĆOŦEN and speak the language daily. Their parents regularly text and consult their SENĆOŦEN dictionaries on their iPods, iPhones and iPads. Language apprentices in their mid-twenties are stepping up as the latest generation of activists determined to continue the trail-blazing work of their parents and ensure that they are capable of passing their language on to their young children. FirstVoices language technologies played an important role in all these activities.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Universities, linguists and governments have documented languages over the years, and some universities have Indigenous language programs. While these have met with some success in documenting language, there is always the problem that the information remains locked away in urban institutions rather than in First Nations communities. This means there is a disconnect between the knowledge base and the learning. What sets us apart is that FirstVoices works directly in communities, always in a manner responsive to the local needs. All language data is owned by the communities and they have control over what is made public and what is considered culturally sensitive or private. FirstVoices makes language tools accessible to all those working with communities to revitalize their languages.

Founding Story

The co-visionaries of FirstVoices were two teaching colleagues at the Saanich Indian School Board. In 2000, language teacher John Elliott and computer teacher Peter Brand conceived the plan for Web-based language documentation and teaching resources while experimenting with early computer-based language software design. First Peoples Cultural Council has transformed their vision into the largest and most successful online Indigenous language resource in the world. Despite this initial success we are a long way from achieving our goals.
About You
First Peoples' Cultural Council
About You
About Your Organization
Organization Name

First Peoples' Cultural Council

Organization Country

, BC, Brentwood Bay

Country where this solution is creating social impact

, BC

Region in BC where your solution creates social impact

Vancouver, Coast and Mountains, Vancouver Island, Thompson Okanagan, Northern British Columbia, Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, Kootenay Rockies, Columbia Basin.

How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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How long have you been in operation?

Operating for more than 5 years

Which of the following best describes the barrier(s) your solution addresses? Choose up to two

Access, Equity.

Social Impact
Please describe the goal of your initiative; outline what you are trying to achieve

Our goal is to facilitate the documentation, archiving and revitalization of the 34 distinct First Nations languages of B.C. Working with language champions through a community development approach, we seek to accelerate the provision of training, equipment, technical support and financial resources to ensure that our rich linguistic heritage is maintained for future generations. Our long term vision is to share this innovative language revitalization approach with endangered language speakers world-wide.

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

Our successes are evident on two fronts. We have successfully worked with 37 different B.C. communities representing 25 distinct First Nations languages. The most robust archives developed to date contain 6,500 – 7,000 entries. The total number of B.C. word and phrase entries archived to date is over 73,000. Once language data is successfully archived, it is important to provide suitable access to the archived materials for would-be learners. The FirstVoices Dictionary, Tutor and Chat Apps are fulfilling this need and gaining widespread respect from Indigenous communities in Canada, the USA, Australia and China.

What is your projected impact over the next five years?

Utilizing a combination of the archiving and learning resources described above, we hope to have completed the archiving and documentation of the most acutely at-risk languages and made headway in the use of the languages in the everyday lives of First Nations communities.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

The most obvious barrier to our long term success is the availability of the resources required to enable community teams to fully document and share their rich linguistic heritage. With a race against time we have sought to diversify our revenue streams and collaborate with others that share this vision. If successful in this Ashoka Changemakers competition we would seek to leverage the support with matched funding from other sources.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Task 1

Select a language community previously un-served by FirstVoices.

Task 2

Assist the community to establish FirstVoices team.

Task 3

Deliver onsite training program in community.

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Task 1

Provide all required language documentation equipment and provide online linguistic and technical support.

Task 2

Successfully archive 2000 2000 words/phrases, 2 stories, 2 songs, 10 tutor lessons.

Task 3

Provide funding for wages and honouraria to community teamand m.atch Ashoka funding to double project deliverables.

Tell us about your partnerships

First Peoples’ Cultural Council‘s work has developed strong partnerships with provincial, national and international partners, including the 70+ First Nations communities in Canada, the USA and Australia who have entrusted us with the safekeeping of their priceless linguistic heritage. Other important partners include the New Relationship Trust, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation,, Tavultesoft and Artscii.

Are you currently targeting other specific populations, locations, or markets for your solution? If so, where and why?

First Nations languages spill over provincial and national borders and so we are interested in efforts to support these regardless of their geographic boundaries.
Recently FirstVoices has been gaining considerable acclaim internationally and other Indigenous peoples world-wide are expressing interest in using the tools and technologies produced. Although this would appear to be a revenue generating proposition we have decided that since Indigenous people are typically the world's most marginalized people we have striven to provide this for free or below cost.

What type of operating environment and internal organizational factors make your innovation successful?

Key to FirstVoices’ 11-year success is the combination of strong partnerships and accountability. Our community partnerships are forged with grass roots language champions determined to help their languages survive. The professional training, linguistic and technical support delivered by the FirstVoices team ensures the success of the community champions. All content uploaded to FirstVoices is logged by the database, allowing the FPCC team to monitor progress and schedule milestone payments accordingly. The resulting high level of transparency and accountability holds strong appeal for our funding partners. Our other key success is our high level of technical innovation in a very specialized field.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list

We support the sharing of our tools, innovations and ideas as widely as possible. Conversely we need to increase our capacity to provide the intense community development for First Nations communities to ensure that languages are being archived and that revitalized is facilitated.