Hello! Nú! Weyt-kp! Xaayda! As stated by Marianne Ignace, soon British Columbians will only be able to say one of these greetings and be understood. The other words are from Squamish, Secwepemc (Shuswap), and Haida languages, which are named as endangered in the UNESCO 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages observance. Here in BC, Ignace is fighting to save such languages from extinction.
“In the last few years, we’ve had exciting new ways to effectively teach languages in communities,”
says Ignace, director of the First Nations Language Centre at Simon Fraser University (SFU)and a member of the Secwepemc tribe who is fluent in Secwepemc and Haida. “It really gives hope that we can turn the situation around.”
The First Nations Language Centre, as well as other BC centres and many indigenous communities themselves, are working to preserve and promote these languages.
Ways of seeing
These efforts are greatly needed in BC where the indigenous languages have fewer and fewer native speakers and where, in most cases, the speakers are elderly.
“In my language [of Secwepemc], spoken in the interior of BC, we have 8000 speakers, [but] less than 100 native speakers, all in their 70s and 80s,” says Ignace. “In Haida Gwaii, we have maybe 10, 12 speakers [of Haida] left. A number of coastal languages are in that situation.”
Ignace believes the results of language extinction are dire. For example, when a language passes from common usage, the indigenous people who speak that language as their mother tongue can have difficulties communicating their needs to health care workers and legal personages. The world too would be poorer, as humanity would miss out on other ways of seeing the world.
“Indigenous peoples have a connection to their homelands, to the landscape, shaped over thousands of years,” Ignace says. “People think and speak in their language, so there’s a unique window that is inherent in how the language is expressed.”
As one example, Secwepemc grammatical structures indicate different ways of thinking.
“In the English language we articulate the nature of evidence for something that speakers know. Did we know it through hearsay? Did we know it from personal experience because we’re deducting it through perception? But it’s not obligatory. Whereas in some indigenous languages, [this] evidentiality is obligatorily marked grammatically. Each time I note a sense I indicate the evidence I have,” she says.
“[This grammatical indication leads to constructions like] the ‘I-know-from-friends-is-fixed house’ [or] the ‘I-saw-with-my-eyes-being-fixed house,’” Ignace continues. “Languages offer different solutions to how we view social interactions and how we talk about things and processes.”
When populations are faced with colonization as the indigenous peoples were in BC, their ways of seeing, and the language that expresses them, cease to be passed from generation to generation, Ignace explains. Instead, younger indigenous peoples adopt the language of colonizers, a process linguists call ‘language shift.’
According to Ignace, this shift often occurs because older generations want to protect their children from the shame linked to their language under colonial systems, says Ignace. In Canada’s residential schools, for example, speaking an indigenous language was associated with punishment.
“The residential school children, as they became parents, didn’t teach their kids the language to spare them the trauma of being humiliated,” she says.
Ignace further explains that even without overt punishment, parents may see the indigenous language as a disadvantage.
“It’s the prestige that accrues to the dominant colonizing language,” says Ignace. “Parents believe that to use the indigenous language in the home with their children will hold them back
Teaching and documenting
But there is hope, notes Ignace. Under her direction, the First Nations Language Centre has a twofold mandate: to teach indigenous languages and to research and document the knowledge of indigenous language speakers. Both involve programs and projects bringing in fresh energy and younger people.
The First Nations Language Centre has concentrated on immersive language settings and longer lessons, which, Ignace says, are more effective than the lessons traditionally offered by educational systems.
“We are doing one and a half days in the classroom, [as well as] additional one-on-one time and small groups with an elder two days a week,” she says with regards to the Secwepemc language program. “[By contrast], the language education offered in [English] public schools for 20 minutes, three times a week, isn’t enough to make young children fluent, especially if they don’t hear it in the home from parents and elders.”
Some programs involve technology, which can be used to reach both younger people and those who cannot commit to full time lessons. A Haida language app, released in 2015, introduces vocabulary and grammar using community-specific topics such as family and elders, the Haida people and their neighbouring nations, and traditional Haida groupings of Eagle and Raven.
“[We’re] really getting somewhere to instil the language in young adults,” says Ignace. “Some are becoming advanced [speakers].”
The documentation of indigenous languages is also well underway.
“There are languages that, before the end of the 19th century, ceased to be spoken [such as] Pentlatch on the coast and Nicola in the southern interior. We have [now only] fragments of wordlists that survive,” Ignace explains. “No speakers were ever fully recorded.”
In order to avoid that fate for other languages, Ignace and her colleagues are recording traditional knowledge and narratives spoken in indigenous languages.
“We’ve been involved in collections of stories, of recordings of different registers of speech that haven’t been recorded before, and that’s very positive,” she says.
These recordings are often made public, as a recent app tells an indigenous story of four men who named the land and developed indigenous laws and protocols.
“If we don’t record that knowledge right now,” says Ignace, “it will be lost.”