Aidan Pine: Academic Contribution to the Faculty of Arts 2016 Award Winner

In 2016, Aidan Pine graduated from the Faculty of Arts with a B.A. in Linguistics and First Nations and Endangered Languages, winning the award for “Academic Contributions to the Faculty of Arts” at the Dean’s Reception for Graduating Student Leaders. During his time at UBC, Aidan developed a mobile app that allows communities to easily create dictionary apps for their own languages. The app has already been used by several Indigenous communities in B.C. and abroad, and Aidan hopes it will assist community-led language revitalization programs around the world. We chatted to him about his research interests, his most memorable moments at UBC and what he would do differently if he could start all over again.

Why did you choose to pursue a degree combining Linguistics and First Nations and Endangered Languages? 

There are a few reasons. The straightforward reason is that the First Nations and Endangered Languages program did not offer an Honours degree program at the time, and I had an Honours thesis idea that I was very passionate about. From a motivational standpoint however, I really feel like there was never any other option for me. I think that theoretical linguistics is beautiful and intellectually engaging, but I’m not sure that it would have been enough for me to stay on its own. The combination of theory, practice and social justice provided by combining a Linguistics degree with studies in First Nations and Endangered Languages and First Nations and Indigenous Studies has resulted in a unique blend of political and intellectual engagement that is endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

Tell me more about your research.

My work and interest has always been in language revitalization. Through an approach to language that is grounded in theoretical linguistics, and a contextualized understanding of the history and political motivations behind language loss and marginalization in BC, I’m interested in research that promotes language use and assists community-led language revitalization programs. For my Honours project, I developed a mobile dictionary app (www.mothertongues.org) that employs a customizable, language agnostic, approximate search algorithm allowing communities with word lists or other types of lexicographic data to create dictionary apps for their languages on both Android and iOS devices in a very short amount of time. Hopefully, this app will widen the technological bottleneck that exists for many communities, both in BC and abroad. The app has already been used for 5 different languages including Gitksan, Cayuga which is spoken in Ontario and New York, and Thangmi which is an endangered Himalayan language, and is slated to be used for over a dozen more. Apart from this Honours project, I am interested in curriculum development, transcription and documentation and the more abstract study of words called morphology.

Tell me about your most memorable moment at UBC.

I have quite a few, so this is quite hard. One moment that stands out is a meeting that I had in early February 2016 with Oral History & Language Lab Coordinator for the Museum of Anthropology Gerry Lawson, Xwi7xwa librarian Kim Lawson, Museum of Anthropology curator Pam Brown and Bella Bella Community School teacher Fran Brown. We met so that I could unveil a Heiltsuk Unicode keyboard and a mobile dictionary app that I had developed as part of both my work through the UBC Arts Undergraduate Research Award as well as my Honours. I had been working extremely hard on the projects and most of my previous consultation and correspondence had been either indirectly through my AURA and Honours supervisor or over email, so to actually be able to meet with some of the people who will primarily use these tools was really incredible and motivating.

Although, I still remember a time back in the beginning of second year when I understood my first bit of conversational Gitksan[1]. I had been meeting twice weekly with fluent Gitksan speaker and elder Barbara Harris as part of my participation in the Gitksan Research Lab, and then one day she asked me how I was doing and if I could get her a glass of water. I replied that I was doing well, and then as I was walking down the hallway to get her water it hit me that the entire (very small) interaction had been entirely in Gitksan. That was definitely a memorable moment.

What kind of challenges have you have faced throughout your UBC experience?

Without a doubt my studies have been trying at times both intellectually and emotionally, but looking back on it, I have simply felt so supported by – first and foremost, my parents – but also the elders who I’ve worked with, my classmates, professors, supervisors, TAs, and counsellors that no single challenge seemed impossible. I really can’t overstate how privileged I feel and how lucky I am to have had the experiences that I did at UBC and to have been supported by so many incredible people.

If you could redo your UBC experience, what’s one thing you would change?

I really feel so fortunate to have had so many incredible experiences at UBC. I think getting involved at an early point was critical, so even though I started working with the Gitksan Research Lab in my second semester of first year, knowing what I know now, I would have started on day one and gotten involved then. I also probably would have liked to have spent more time out at the UBC Farm.

What is your next step after graduation?

I feel like grad school can put unnecessary pressure on collaborative, community-based research and language revitalization work. That is, if I were to jump into a graduate program, come up with an idea for a thesis and then go to the community to collaborate on it, there would be a whole lot of deadlines and expectations that I might be going into that community with that could stifle true collaboration. So, it’s my intention to move up to Gitksan territory in the spring of 2017 to further some of the work I have started, primarily with the Gitksan online and app-based dictionaries, deepen some of the relationships I’ve been creating on my yearly visits in the summer and see where it takes me! Between now and then I’ll be continuing my work as a research assistant in both the FNIS and FNEL programs, working as a technology consultant for the Gitksan Research Lab’s dictionary projects and running a food truck that I started, own and operate on Vancouver Island (www.jumavictoria.com).

[1] A language spoken along the Skeena river and surrounding tributaries in Northern BC and the language community which I have worked with the longest.