Immersion programs revitalize First Nation languages

With only seven fluent speakers left in the Squamish Nation, Khelsilem is in a hurry to prevent his language from becoming extinct.

Khelsilem is the program director and founder of Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a not-for-profit society for the Squamish Nation. He hopes that the new Liberal government will carry out its commitment through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Call to Action, which includes revitalizing indigenous languages.

The 2014 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages, Second Edition, published by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, summarizes the status of indigenous languages through information collected from 180 of 203 First Nations communities across British Columbia.

Aliana Parker, language revitalization programs specialist for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council explains.

“When we look back at the data collected from 2010, we’re able to see an increase in semi-fluent speakers, which means people in First Nations communities are beginning to learn their language again.”

Parker further explains that fluent speakers, often elders in the community, are actually on the decline. She finds this troubling because there are fewer teachers available to develop the next generation of indigenous language leaders.

Fear of extinction drives action

Dr. Marianne Ignace and Khelsilem share their experiences with revitalizing the Squamish Nation adult immersion language program. | Photo by Susan Hancock

Dr. Marianne Ignace and Khelsilem share their experiences with revitalizing the Squamish Nation adult immersion language program. | Photo by Susan Hancock

Khelsilem is committed to revitalizing the Squamish Nation language. His latest venture is a partnership with Simon Fraser University’s First Nations Language Centre and the Department of Linguistics to launch an adult language immersion program in Sept. 2016. Fifteen indigenous learners will spend over 1,000 learning hours in their first year to receive SFU’s Language Proficiency Certificate. Second year students will continue mastering their fluency though the Kwi Awt Stelmexw Society’s immersion program.

“What we know in our hearts and what we’ve learned as either linguist language educators like myself, or as activists and through communities, is that classroom instruction a few hours a week just isn’t enough,” says Dr. Marianne Ignace, director of SFU’s First Nations Program and professor of Linguistic Studies. “To get a good language level, you need at least 1,000 hours of learning.”

The Squamish Nation adult immersion program will be taught through peer-to-peer interactions such as playing games or doing daily activities like cooking a meal. Students will develop their proficiency by listening to recordings of their ancestors, and by regularly meeting with elders from their community to master proper accent, pronunciation and grammar structure.

Khelsilem recently moderated the panel discussion How to Learn an Indigenous Language at SFU’s Woodwards building. Dakota Brant was one of the panelists. Her citizenship belongs with the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan. Brant wasn’t exposed to the Mohawk language growing up, but at 18 she joined an adult immersion language program in her community. Now a semi-fluent speaker, she continues to develop her proficiency using the root word methodology. Root word methodology is a language teaching model that focuses on adding words, modifiers and pronouns to create long complex sentences that are common in indigenous languages.

The Mohawk language has 75 different pronouns, whereas the English language only has 11 pronouns.

“It’s a complex language which requires discipline to learn,” says Brant. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Government support needed for First Nations language immersion programs

Khelsilem believes that by reclaiming the Squamish language members of his community will reconnect with their culture.

He explains that his community would be more resilient and creative about solving problems if they addressed issues through their traditional language.

“Our language allows us to look at a problem in the same way because we’re able to have a conversation that incorporates the same understanding of our values, traditions, and our culture.”

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council is the only Crown agency dedicated to revitalizing First Nations languages. An annual budget of $1.5 million is disbursed across 203 B.C. First Nations communities. Many applications are declined each year because of a lack of funding, which means many First Nation languages could eventually become extinct.

“With the current funding commitment for First Nations languages, we’re going to see what we’ve seen in the past: a slow steady growth,” says Parker. “Ideally, we need a significant investment to see a jump in response from First Nations learners.”

To view SFU’s panel discussion, How to Learn an Indigenous Language, please visit