Language revival takes to the Internet

(Edmonton) The spoken word has a University of Alberta ally who is taking her fight to revive one of Canada’s oldest languages to the Internet.

Dorothy Thunder, a sessional Cree language instructor in the Faculty of Native Studies, is heading a team in the midst of finalizing an online Moodle version of Introductory Cree, which is expected to be ready for September.  

The Moodle platform is an open-source web application software package the U of A uses to help educators create online courses with a focus on interaction and collaborative construction, and is designed for continual evolution. The university’s virtual learning class, the Elluminate classroom, will support the online material that requires further explanation.

“We wanted to find a way to better reach outside communities,” said Thunder, who has experience with online instruction, having taught Cree for Sunchild E-Learning, a distance-learning program designed for Aboriginal youth, for the past three years. “I have had numerous phone calls from people wanting to learn Cree but can’t take time away from their work schedule to actually come here to take the course.

“That’s when we thought we would develop something online.”
Thunder, who has been an instructor on campus since 2002, says developing an online written curriculum for a language that is largely oral has had some challenges, but the finished product should give those interested in learning the basics of Cree a firm grasp of the language.

“Some say it is a difficult language to learn with all its complexities, but once they get into the course they always have fun working with it,” said Thunder, explaining Cree is based around “animacy,” which is a type of language that bases the characteristic of its nouns on their sentient or living nature. “Certain verbs go with certain nouns depending on their animacy. Once students have an understanding of that, Cree can be fairly straightforward.”

Thunder says that, In a typical classroom setting, she will often use group work as a tool for learning Cree, and says she is hopeful that she can capture that dynamic in the virtual setting.

“I don’t ever want my classrooms to be something where I am doing everything and the students are just copying,” said Thunder. “I want to ensure the classroom is a comfortable environment where students know it’s OK to make mistakes and expand their knowledge.”

Thunder, who is also actively involved with the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute, says she is counting on a good response to this online introductory Cree class from those working with Aboriginal communities—some of whom have been calling for a class of this nature—but fully expects students with a number of varied backgrounds to take on the language.

“That’s what I like about the university, the diversity of students,” said Thunder. “There are a lot of things happening here and changing all the time.”

The Moodle project is part of outgoing native studies Dean Ellen Bielawski's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant for the Cree program and features input from incoming interim dean Nathalie Kermoal and Nicole Lugosi, a junior Cree professor in the faculty.

Thunder and Lugosi will giving presentation about this online Moodle version of introductory Cree during the Sharing Indigenous Languages Symposium being held at Campus Saint-Jean’s Pavillon Lacerte Grand Salon May 26 from 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Organizers are hoping to highlight issues faced in sharing indigenous languages, while also focusing on successes thus far, particularly in the creative realm.

For more information on the event go to www.ualberta.ca/nativestudies.