Graduate student uses technology to support Indigenous language learning

After finding few digital resources available, Delaney Lothian decided to create a game and app for learning Cree language.

Master's student Delaney Lothian

Master's student Delaney Lothian created an app and a game for Cree language learners, with the goal of supporting Indigenous peoples as they connect with their cultures through language. (Photo: Jordon Hon/Office of the Registrar)

Delaney Lothian jumped at the chance to take an introductory Cree language course—an opportunity to expand beyond the programming languages of her computing science major at the University of Alberta.

Like any 21st-century student, she turned to the internet for help. To her surprise, she found very few digital resources for Cree.

“The kind of stuff that is missing is super basic. I was like, ‘I know basic programming.’ And so that kind of planted the seed,” said Lothian.

She would go on to dedicate the remainder of her undergraduate degree to creating tools that support Indigenous language learners. In addition to an app that helps conjugate verbs, she has also created a Space Invaders-inspired game to help learners connect Cree sounds to the written language. 

“If you’re in an urban area, it can be really hard to connect with people to learn from them. It can also be really intimidating,” said Lothian, who is finishing the first year of her master’s in the Faculty of Science. “Technology plays an important role in supporting people to get to a place where they can more confidently interact with speakers. Technology plays that supportive role, but it’s not supposed to replace the human element.”

Delaney Lothian
Delaney Lothian focuses on using technology to help people learn Cree pronunciation, honouring the oral tradition of the language: “Technology plays that supportive role, but it’s not supposed to replace the human element.” (Photo: Jordon Hon/Office of the Registrar)

Lothian, a Métis woman from Lac Ste. Anne, understands the importance of language to Indigenous communities. Her grandparents’ generation were the last to fluently speak their language, Cree Michif, but out of fear and intergenerational trauma from residential schools, the language did not get passed down, she said.

As a student at the U of A, Lothian was building relationships with Elders at First Peoples’ House, a space that offers programs for Indigenous students. During this time, Lothian recognized how meaningful it would be to speak Cree Michif with her older relatives.

So, in 2018, Lothian started work on the technology that would help people like her. She received a scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to work under Carrie Demmans Epp, an assistant professor in the Department of Computing Science who leads the multidisciplinary Educational Technology, Knowledge, Language, and Learning Analytics Research Group

Lothian focused her work on technology to help people learn Cree pronunciation, honouring the oral tradition of the language. She reached out to Dorothy Thunder, who teaches Cree in the Faculty of Native Studies, and received permission to use recordings from the introductory Cree course.

With those, Lothian developed Sound Hunters, a Space Invaders-inspired game to help users link verbal sounds with written letters and words. In the game, Cree sounds are played on repeat, and players must shoot the incoming creature bearing the correct corresponding letter or word. Lothian is building both a web and app version. 

“There hasn’t been a lot of work, even worldwide, regardless of language, helping people develop their oral abilities … but that game aims to move in that direction,” said Demmans Epp. 

Projects like this rely on participatory design—meaning users and Indigenous communities are involved in developing the technology, explained Lothian. Her graduate work explores how to build the tools in a way that allows Indigenous peoples across Canada to easily adapt them for their own languages. Lothian has plans to collaborate with a couple of Indigenous communities who are interested in their own version of Sound Hunters.

“Indigenous language learning focuses a lot more on interpersonal relationships and culture—how these manifest varies community to community,” said Lothian. “There is no way to build good Indigenous language technology without building it with them rather than for them.”

Beyond Sound Hunters, Lothian also developed a verb conjugation app for a dialect of Michif. During her undergraduate degree, she served as a youth ambassador on the National Research Council’s Indigenous languages technology project, a federal project that works in close collaboration and partnership with Indigenous communities across Canada. The source code will be posted publicly online, which will allow communities to upload their own spreadsheet of verb conjugations and make the app work for their language.

Lothian said the ultimate goal of her projects is to support Indigenous peoples as they connect with their cultures through language. Today, she practises Cree Michif with her older relatives in Lac Ste. Anne, building cultural understanding through the words themselves.

“[Language] just plays such an important role in the history, the present, the knowledge,” said Lothian. “It's central to everything.”