VANCOUVER - Four decades ago, Pena Elliott's grandfather sat down with a typewriter and created the written form of the native language spoken in his First Nations community on Vancouver Island.
The standard 26-letter Roman alphabet couldn't account for all of the intricate sounds of the language, so he created new characters by overlapping letters and punctuation.
For example, he typed the letter T, hit the backspace and then placed hyphen overtop. The resulting character sounds similar to "th."
"As soon as the alphabet was created, we were able to teach in schools," says Elliott, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, one of the bands in the Saanich First Nation north of Victoria.
"Our language would never be in the place that it was if it wasn't for that alphabet," adds Elliott, 33, a language apprentice at the local tribal school in Brentwood Bay, B.C.
The new alphabet worked for generations, but computers and smartphones that don't support such languages have created a barrier for aboriginals, particularly youth, who want to combine their ancestral dialects with the latest technology.
But an iPhone and iPad app released this week called FirstVoices aims to bridge that gap, allowing users to chat using their native language for the first time.
The app, created by the British Columbia-based First Peoples' Cultural Council, features nearly 100 customized keyboards that display the characters used by a wide variety of native languages. Most of the languages are used by Canadian First Nations, but the app also supports indigenous languages from the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
FirstVoices also connects users to the contacts in their Facebook and Google Talk accounts.
Elliott has yet to use the app, but he's eager to try it, whether for sending messages to his father or using the program to encourage his students at the tribal school to chat in their community's language.
"This new chat (software) is going to help our more fluent speakers a lot, because we're able to type it in, we're able to think in the language," says Elliott.
"It helps you memorize it a lot more if you use it every day. The grammar is way different (than English), so you've got to structure the sentences when you're typing."
For Elliott, even typing his own name can be a challenge with standard computers or smartphones. In his native language, his name is PENAWEN, in all capitals, with an apostrophe over the A and underscores under the W and the N — all characters that are included in the FirstVoices app.
The First Peoples' Cultural Council, a provincial Crown corporation, has already made nearly a dozen dictionary apps for aboriginal languages in B.C., with more on the way.
The council's chair, Lorna Williams, says her organization wants to ensure young aboriginals have the tools they need — and want — to learn their languages and connect with their culture.
"We've been working so hard at increasing the number of speakers at every generation, and the youth, the 20- and 30-year-olds, they wanted to be able to communicate using the devices they have today, so they're the ones that demanded something," says Williams, a member of the Lil'wat First Nation in Mount Currie, B.C.
"What we're finding is that the young people who are learning to speak their language and are becoming proficient at it, they begin to speak with real pride and there's a real attachment to a sense of history and a connection to their ancestors."
The council produced a report in 2010 that warned First Nation languages are in danger of being lost. The report concluded only five per cent of First Nations people in the province were fluent in their native languages, and another eight per cent were considered semi-fluent.
The report pointed to several factors that have contributed to the decline of native speakers, including the legacy of the residential schools that forbade aboriginal children from speaking their languages, modern-day social pressures to speak English and the exclusion of First Nations languages from government, business, arts and the media.
"Our languages for so many generations were viewed by the Canadian public to be useless and of no use to anybody," says Williams.
"For any young person, that's what they have to get past."
Currently, the FirstVoices chat app is only available on Apple devices.
Peter Brand, the manager of the FirstVoices project for the council, says the font used in Apple's operating system made the app possible.
The main system font in Apple devices is Helvetica, which already contains nearly every character needed to replicate aboriginal languages — even those based on non-Roman syllabic characters.
Brand says there has been software for personal computers for years that can add those characters to standard keyboards, but there hasn't been similar tools for mobile technology.
"It's not clear to non-aboriginal people just how inaccessible tools like this have been," says Brand, who isn't aboriginal himself.
"This app is the first multi-language, indigenous texting app in the world. It's pretty important."
On the web: