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Inupiaraaqta app mobilizes language learning

April 15th, 2016 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

For a long time now, students of Inupiaq have had to rely on the yellowing pages of often out-of-print dictionaries and the time and energy of a decreasing number of fluent speakers to learn the language.

For that reason, there's been a recent push toward utilizing the platform of mobile apps to modernize the approach to language learning.

Last month, the Northwest Arctic Inupiaq Language Commission, in cooperation with NANA Regional Corp. and app designer Ogoki Learning Systems Inc., released the Inupiaraaqta app for iOS.

"There's such a concern about the loss of language, the urgency for perpetuating the language," said Lori Henry, chief operating officer for NANA. "The Inupiaq Language Commission and the regional Elders' Council identified the need to look at ways to connect with young people and they were interested in pursuing projects that were using electronic devices."

The app features words and phrases in categories like introductions, animals, and weather with options to see the spelling or hear a speaker pronounce it.

"Apps like Inupiaraaqta use audio recordings, so people are hearing how to correctly pronounce the letters and words and phrases they're seeing. Hopefully as they practice, they also become less self-conscious as speakers," said Tim Argetsinger, the former Inupiaq language and cultural manager at NANA.

Argetsinger, who also consulted on the Achagat app for iPhone, said he initially became involved because Kotzebue's Myles Creed was independently working on creating an Inupiatun phrases app using freeware provided by Ogoki.

"I reached out to Myles and we brainstormed the app phrase list together. Since Myles was teaching himself how to create an app for the first time, NANA decided to partner directly with Ogoki to expedite the process and get a more professional product," he explained.

Ogoki is a Canadian company based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was founded by Darrick Baxter, a self-taught app developer who specializes in language preservation apps.

Baxter used to teach programming at the University of Winnipeg and got into the app business about five years ago when he developed his first Ojibway language app for iPad, which has since been downloaded more than 150,000 times. After he distributed the free source code he developed for the app, he was contacted by several other tribes wanting to make similar apps for their languages, like Inupiaq.

"I am always willing to help tribes realize their dreams of revitalizing their native language," said Baxter. "I love doing projects like this because it brings people closer together and strengthens families' connections to their past."

He's made about 120 language apps and games over the last five years at the price of $2,500 per project, which he described as a comparatively low amount. He also holds indigenous language app camps for kids in Winnipeg for suicide prevention; it gets them motivated to participate in and reconnected with their culture, he said.

"The real payment is seeing what children and parents do with the apps. They love learning and they love speaking. The kids love hearing others speak the language and the elders laugh when they hear this tiny machine talk in their language," he said. "It's great!"

In the Inupiaraaqta app, users can hear the voices of Gladys Pungowiyi, Mary Schaeffer, and Whittier Williams Jr. say the phrases.

Argetsinger recorded the three fluent speakers reading off of a phrase list that he and Creed developed with the help of Kapniaq Lorena Williams and Nangaaq Rachel Sherman. Baxter then cleaned up the audio recordings and matched them to the written phrases within the app.

"The voice recordings help people understand how to pronounce the different sounds in the Inupiatun alphabet," said Argetsinger. "Being able to read and write in the language is an important building block for learning because it's harder to write down words you might hear or be learning from people without knowing the writing system."

The Inupiaraaqta app is still in its soft launch phase. Since it was released a month ago, there have been just under 350 downloads. About a quarter of the people who downloaded the app agreed to share their usage statistics and diagnostics with the development team. Of those, there have been more than 500 use sessions in the last 30 days with no app crashes.

The numbers are encouraging, said NANA's Shelly Wozniak, which is why the development team is looking into making versions of the app for other operating systems.

"We know that people are very interested, anecdotally, in Android. We want to do a couple of things with the iOS rollout, like make sure we don't get a lot of crashes. We want to see if people like the way the information is organized so, if we have to make any changes, we can do it in the build out of the Android platform," she said. "We're trying to do it as efficiently as possible. The metrics are lining up with what we're hearing and we'll need to report back to the Inupiaq Language Commission to see what they want to do, as well."

Argetsinger isn't surprised by the positive feedback the app has been receiving so far. He thinks there's a real desire for language tools that can be easily used by the younger generation.

"This app is really just an outgrowth of what young people have been telling anyone who will listen for decades: they desperately want and need Inupiatun learning resources because the language is barely allowed to be taught in schools, there are very few fluent speakers left, and learning resources are simply not being created in any systematic way," he said. "This app is a small tool that can hopefully aid in the promotion and use of Inupiatun."

The Inupiaraaqta app for iOS is free and available for download on the app store.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.

 

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