Using virtual reality to strengthen Cree language

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The Cree School Board (CSB) will be offering the most cutting-edge language-teaching technology in Quebec, if not the whole country, when three pilot projects begin in Chisasibi, Nemaska and Oujé-Bougoumou this month.

The Cree Syllabics Virtual Reality (CSVR) project, called Niwîchewâka (or Niwîchâwâkan, depending on dialect) is the first attempt to use virtual reality (VR) to teach First Nations languages. Over the game’s 20 modules, elementary-school students will use Niwîchewâka to enter into a land-based world where they follow Niipiish, a Cree girl, and her English-speaking dog Achimush, helping them complete word and spelling activities.

“I wanted it to look like they’re at their camp,” said CSB Deputy Director General (Pedagogical) Serge Béliveau. “You play with a bow and arrow to shoot at the words, and pick up a stick to trace over the syllabics. The syllabics mainly validate and solidify the learning they’ve done with their teacher. The students learn the language that’s already integrated in the curriculum. They play with the language and the syllabics to create the words, and they’re guided through the story over those 20 episodes by the two main characters, who are asking them certain questions.”

The Cree language is strong across Eeyou Istchee, but the CSB was not certain it was strong enough. Looking to determine the level of Cree fluency, the CSB set up a study of their students’ language ability – and discovered that most students weren’t as fluent as they hoped.

“We found that we were starting to lose the Cree language,” said CSB Director General Abraham Jolly. “When the kids were coming into our school system, their Cree was not what you’d characterize as mother-tongue Cree. There were bits and pieces of Cree and English mixed together. In the school setting, we’re trying to solidify teaching Cree correctly, whether it’s grammatical, or syllabics. We’re trying to strengthen the Cree language through our school system.”

In seeking to fortify students’ language skills, said Jolly, the CSB was open to technological approaches from the beginning.

“Our kids are very much engaged with technology,” he said. “At the same time, you want them to learn their language and maybe find the means to do that more effectively, where they’d be engaged with it. The best learning is when kids don’t even know they’re learning, because they’re having so much fun.”


That was what brought Serge Béliveau to the offices of Minority Media to meet with Ernie Webb, who was already working on video games as a teaching tool to protect and expand traditional languages. Initially, Béliveau imagined they would work on engaging students through something like game-building to see the different parts of their curriculum from a new perspective. However, Webb showed Béliveau a project that featured a 360-degree virtual reality environment.

“It was in a Mongolian teepee,” Béliveau recalls. “I was extremely impressed with what I saw, and I already saw the potential to use virtual reality for a Cree culture immersion, a learning environment that would be very traditional, and help them deepen their understanding of their language through something fun.”

The seeds of Niwîchewâka were sown and on November 2, the game was officially launched at a press conference in Montreal. Schools in Chisasibi, Nemaska and Oujé-Bougoumou each received the Vive VR systems that the game runs on.

“It’s the higher-end technology on the market – top of the line,” says Béliveau. “Hopefully we’ll get to a point where people will be able to use it at home.”

Each of the game’s 20 modules consists of only five minutes of game-play, to prevent students from becoming dizzy or disoriented.

“We’re training the teachers and we had an information session in each of the communities for the parents,” Béliveau explained. “We wanted everybody to try it, so they would be able to better understand what their children were doing.”

However, Jolly underlined that the game will be only one component of the CSB’s approach to teaching the Cree language.

“This brings it into the context of where they are, in the classroom, but it allows them to visualize through the virtual reality that they’re out on the land,” Jolly said. “Even for adults, it’s engaging to find yourself in this virtual reality. Now, if they were to go into the bush setting and learn things, the virtual reality maybe gives them some sense about it, but the bush isn’t virtual – it’s reality-reality!”

That’s the bottom line, Jolly said. Like Cree culture and traditions, the Cree language is based in the land, and it will always be experienced there more than anywhere else.


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