Dehcho First Nations building Dene Zhatié language app


The Dehcho First Nations will soon launch an app designed to teach people the basics of the Dehcho Dene Zhatié language.

The app is being built by Darrick Baxter, whose company has years of experience designing similar apps for languages like Ojibway and Cree. It’s expected to be ready later this summer.

Dehcho First Nations language manager Violet Jumbo and Dene Zhatié language specialist Andy Norwegian met with Baxter in Yellowknife this week to fine-tune how the app will work.

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The language lessons it contains are based on a 20-lesson guide prepared by Jumbo and Norwegian.

The first lesson, for example, explains how to introduce yourself to an Elder. Subsequent lessons teach the basics of actions like greeting others or counting.

Jumbo said demand for a new tool to help learn the language was high, sparked in part by the success of a mentor-apprentice program – introduced, she said, by the Dehcho First Nations and now managed by the territorial government – that pairs fluent speakers with people who want to learn.

“When we were doing our mentor-apprentice program in the region, there were a lot of people that wanted to learn the language, but didn’t have any resources or anything to rely on,” Jumbo told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.

“There are a lot of apprentices looking for mentors, but they are hard to find,” she said, adding that new language teachers are also difficult to come by.

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Initially, the Dehcho First Nations planned to launch a dictionary app for people with some knowledge of the language to use as a reference guide. That app is still in the works, but Jumbo said the requests for more support made the group change its approach.

“That’s what we started off with,” she said of the dictionary app, “but then we thought about the mentor-apprentice program – the apprentices were saying there were no more resources out there, nothing for them to use to learn the language. So we switched over and decided to do this one.”

App developer Darrick Baxter
App developer Darrick Baxter. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Baxter said a team of five young developers in Manitoba is working to create the Dehcho First Nations’ language app and others like it.

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“You can listen to the audio, see a situation and then start to teach yourself,” he said of the story-based approach Jumbo and Norwegian have pushed to introduce to their app.

Baxter sees uses beyond Dehcho residents looking to learn their traditional language.

“If you’re travelling to a community,” he said, “or you’re a teacher or doctor going into the community, you can use this app and have this conversational-style understanding of the language.”

Norwegian hopes the app achieves two aims: becoming a tool to help language learners but also acting to “document the language that is used by the Elders and enhance that preservation.”

Jumbo, who said the app’s development draws on territorial language revitalization funding, ultimately wants it to result in more Dene Zhatié conversations around her.

“I hope to see people using the language more,” she said, “and especially to hear younger people that can speak the language.”