Cross-cultural language learning

Conversation partners at a free Arabic-English language exchange for women | Photo by Mary Leighton

Conversation partners at a free Arabic-English language exchange for women | Photo by Mary Leighton

Most language learners today are no strangers to phrasebooks, immersion programs, or Rosetta Stone, but how about using First Nations language learning apps, or watching ultrasound imagery to speak Cantonese, or adopting an Arabic conversation partner?

In today’s globalized world where the value of multilingualism is increasingly palpable, technology advisor Costa Dedegikas, linguist Heather Bliss and provincial organizer Mary Leighton have introduced unconventional methods for modern language learners.

For all three, teaching languages has also meant teaching cultures, and in some cases, saving cultures from extirpation.

Protecting cultures with language technology

Perhaps the intersection of technology, language, and cultural preservation is most salient right here in British Columbia’s First Nations communities.

Dedegikas is the technology manager of Simon Fraser University’s SNF New Media Lab, currently supported by the federal government and 22 Aboriginal community groups in building online pedagogy for 12 B.C. First Nations languages.

Using voice recordings from indigenous elders and artwork from Aboriginal youth, Dedegikas’ team and the SFU First Nations Language Centre are producing web and mobile apps that will teach dialogue, vocabulary and grammar in endangered languages such as X̱aad Kil (Haida) and Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim. The first apps will launch this fall.

For Dedegikas, the crux of these apps lies in infusing ancestral stories behind language, geography and botany – to generate pride amongst indigenous youth in their history.

He comments also that language technologies allow for collection of data to improve curriculum and teaching methods as the apps move forward.

These apps will be critical for revitalizing Canada’s indigenous languages, most of which are on the brink of extinction due to historical assimilation policies banning indigenous cultural practices.

A 2014 report by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council found that fluent speakers comprise only four per cent of B.C.’s First Nations population. As of that year, only nine fluent speakers remained for X̱aad Kil, and seven for Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim. Four B.C. indigenous languages no longer have living speakers.

“You can’t take the culture outside of language, and you can’t take the language outside of culture,” he says.

The SFU team is not alone in preserving indigenous languages.

Heather Bliss is the research coordinator of the University of British Columbia’s eNunciate! project, spearheading ultrasound technology for language learning. She recently garnered attention for piloting ultrasound overlay videos in UBC’s new Cantonese language course, the first for-credit program of its kind in Canada.

Beyond Cantonese, Bliss’ research background also focuses on First Nations languages. She spent the summer visiting indigenous communities, producing videos instructing younger speakers to pronounce the sounds of their languages.

“Our idea is that if you teach them exactly how to form their tongue and put their mouths into the right shape, they’ll be able to do it,” Bliss explains.

These follow-along videos juxtapose ultrasound imagery over a speaker’s side profile, demonstrating the tongue’s placement and shape.

Alongside First Nations languages, videos are being developed for French, German, Spanish and Mandarin. Language educators outside UBC can also create customized videos with software that Bliss has produced.

Whether a First Nations language or not, Bliss notes that learning a language delivers significant neurological benefits, contributing to neuroplasticity.

Connecting cultures through language exchange

For Leighton, an organizer with the Dogwood Initiative, cultural sharing is central to the language exchange program she runs voluntarily outside her work. Compared to Dedegikas and Bliss, Leighton reckons her approach is “retro.”

Last December, amidst the overwhelming response of Canadians wanting to assist Syrian refugees, Leighton saw an opportunity to connect English and Arabic speakers. Modelled on the UBC Tandem Program she founded in 2011, Leighton began a free 10-week Arabic-English language exchange for women at the Ajyal Centre in Vancouver, pairing up participants and facilitating two-hour informal meetings to practise each other’s languages.

“I was comfortable tilting the program towards women, because men are often better able to access language programs,” Leighton explains.

The Arabic women were all recent immigrants of between three months to a few years, ranging from 17 to 60, and coming from a variety of countries including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

At the end of 10 weeks, the English and Arabic women broke the fast of Ramadhan together, eating and celebrating Eid at the Centre.

Marie Shuman, a participant in the exchange and current coordinator of UBC Tandem, recalls sharing jokes and sending her partner her first text message in Arabic.

“Being able to speak [someone’s] language helps you see where they’re coming from,” she says.

Resulting from this program, Shuman and Leighton have started Language Partners BC, a volunteer-run organization continuing to facilitate language exchange in the community.

This fall, they will host a 12-week Arabic-English exchange for men and the same for women at the Ajyal Centre, as well as Turkish-English exchange at the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House.

“There is a socially progressive agenda underlying what I’m doing, certainly, to help people overcome isolation in this city. I think having a physical space to go to and a smiling face that greets you is important,” Leighton says.

Words of advice

It’s not for the weak and weary,” Dedegikas says.

Bliss, Dedegikas and Leighton all agree that language learning, whether online or offline, requires strong commitment.

“Enjoy the journey and accept it as a lifelong road. As someone who has read Turkish in Three Months for 13 years, I respect the road,” Leighton adds.

To learn more about the SNF New Media Lab and eNunciate!, visit and respectively.

For more information about Language Partners BC and to join their programs, visit