Ultrasound technology helps Hul'q'umi'num' language learners pronounce sounds authentically

Before she died, Rae Anne Claxton Baker’s grandmother told her that one of her greatest regrets was not teaching her how to speak Hul’q’umi’num’.

So Claxton Baker made her a promise that she would learn the language somehow.

Through mentorship with elders and the help of ultrasound technology, Claxton Baker is making sure she fulfils that promise. 

She is currently doing the mentor-apprentice language learning program with the First Peoples Cultural Council. She has been accepted to do her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Alberta where she will help develop technological tools to support Indigenous language revitalization. 

Claxton Baker said learning Hul’q’umi’num’ is challenging because there are sounds in the language that don’t exist in English. 

“There’s all these little ways that we need to learn in order to keep speaking our language authentically,” she said. 

A computer program that uses ultrasound technology to show the tongue’s movement in the mouth is helping learners fine tune the phonetic details of speaking the language. 

Ultrasound technology

Sonya Bird is a professor with the University of Victoria who is working with a team of linguists to help enhance Hul’q’umi’num’ language learning through technology. 

She said that ultrasound has been useful for Hul’q’umi’num’ learners.

The ultrasound wand is placed under the chin of a speaker and an image of the speaker’s mouth is shown so they can see how the tongue, teeth and lips move when speaking. 

Professor Sonya Bird with Sharon Seymour and Rae Ann Claxton Baker. (UVic photo services)

This is done in collaboration with Hul’q’umi’num’ elders who speak the language so that learners can see how to produce the language’s sounds authentically.

Bird said that with West Coast Indigenous languages the sounds are so complex that the speakers benefit from the technology as tools in their learning.

“The language revitalisation movement is really being carried right now by adult language learners and they’re really committed to sounding authentic and to honouring their elders in the way that they speak.” 

Ultrasound in language class

For about two years, Sharon Seymour has been learning Hul’q’umi’num’.

“My parents are fluent and my grandparents spoke a lot,” said Seymour.

“I just wanted to be able to understand them and to be able to hold a conversation with them.”

Seymour is from Kwa’mutsun, a member of Quw’utsun’ tribe, which is one of the largest Cowichan communities in B.C. 

She was able to take part in a science of language class with Bird, who brought an ultrasound unit into the classroom so that students could see how they are speaking Hul’q’umi’num’.

Seymour said the class helped, showing students exactly how to position their mouths. 

“You can see your tongue and then practise and say it properly,” she said.

Seymour is a single mother and her son, who is learning Hul’q’umi’num’ through school, was able to sit in on a session with his mother and experience the ultrasound imaging as well.

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