UBC linguistics professor Dr. Bryan Gick, postdoctoral fellow Heather Bliss and their colleagues recognized the gap and set out to bridge it. They knew they needed the expertise of language teachers, so they reached out across department lines to create a multidisciplinary team comprising faculty in linguistics, language sciences, computer science and Asian studies, giving rise to an integrated group working across UBC to improve student learning.
Backed by language research and supported by the UBC Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) and a flexible learning grant, the group layered audio recordings with ultrasound technology to create the first-ever way to literally get inside a native language speaker’s head. With the accompanying prosody visualizer — similar in appearance to a graphic equalizer — learners can record their own voices and compare them to that of a model speaker, pairing the visual and aural modalities for maximum learning.
The results have been astonishing.
Not only did the tool deliver on its promise on improving learners’ pronunciation, it proved useful for speech therapists and language teachers as well. But what no one saw coming was how powerful the program is at reviving languages that are on the verge of extinction.
Take, for example, the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation of Vancouver Island, who have just a few remaining first-language speakers. With eNunciate and the tongue visualizer as tools, the W̱SÁNEĆ are now able to create accessible programming for children and adults alike to reclaim and reintegrate their language. The Upriver Halq’emeylem peoples of the Lower Mainland also are using the technology, recording and preserving the language as it is spoken by their last native speaker.
The program helps learners get their pronunciations right — a challenge given that many sounds in Indigenous languages come from far back in the vocal tract, which until now has been difficult to visualize and replicate. The eNunciate project is doing even more than that, however. It’s helping Aboriginal learners reconnect with their languages in a way that is reflective of a deeper connection with nature and a stronger sense of culture — indeed in a way that represents an entirely different worldview.
The work continues, with Dr. Bliss and her colleagues travelling to Aboriginal communities throughout western Canada, tongue visualizer and recording kit in hand, ready to teach users how to use the tools to develop their own language libraries — for now, and for generations from now.