Walk across the UVic campus, catch a bus downtown and crisscross the streets of Victoria. How many languages do you hear? You may recognize the sounds of Mandarin, Punjabi, Arabic, French or Spanish — the list of languages that surround us is immense. Mainstream North America may be monolingual, but even those of us who speak only English recognize the linguistic diversity here. Or so we think.
Collectively, most of the European and South-Asian languages spoken in North America belong to just three different language families, and most of the Asian languages hail from an additional half-dozen. In contrast, the languages that are indigenous to North America come from more than 50 language families, with over 300 individual languages and dialects spoken. But in your trip across Victoria, it’s unlikely you heard a single sentence of an Indigenous language, and to most people, such speech isn’t familiar at all.
But this may be changing. Across Canada, First Nations communities are working to renew the teaching of their languages. Textbooks, computer applications and language classes are appearing rapidly.
“There is so much to be learned from Indigenous languages,” says Dr. Leslie Saxon, a linguistics professor at UVic who has worked with the Tłı̨chǫ (TLITCH-õ) people of the Northwest Territories for over 15 years. Recently, she helped the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency to develop a free iDevice app for studying Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì, the Tłı̨chǫ language. The app gives definitions of more than 1 300 Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì words and phrases, with accompanying audio and pictures.
The Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì app is similar to the material on the First Voices website, a site conceived 11 years ago in Saanich that has word lists, audio, pictures and vocabulary games for over 40 indigenous languages.
UVic also offers several linguistics courses that introduce Indigenous languages, and UVic’s Certificate Program in Aboriginal Language Revitalization provides the opportunity for students to learn these languages in detail. Schools in certain First Nations communities, notably Tsartlip, Saanich, have begun language immersion classes for children and are looking to extend immersion to a high-school level. Furthermore, curricula have been registered with the B.C. government for many Indigenous language courses, and a few public high schools, such as Stelly’s Secondary in Central Saanich, are beginning to offer courses to interested students.
Yet the teaching and learning of Indigenous languages are immersed in issues that are far from simple. To those outside the community, finding resources for learning Indigenous languages remains extremely challenging. The Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì app is essentially a multimedia dictionary; it does not provide language lessons. This is also true of the content on the First Voices website. Saxon, who has also contributed to a more grammar-guiding dictionary and a reading-and-writing manual, states that these resources are intended for people who already speak Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì.
“There are resources out there,” says Aliki Marinakis, UVic’s Indigenous Language Programs Co-ordinator. “But most of the resources are developed in a community context, by community members . . . some of which you’d have access to as a non-community members, and some of which you’d need to have contacts in the community to access.”
According to Marinakis, depending on the particular community, language teachers may want linguistic information to remain protected.
“One thing you have to remember is that this is a colonized environment where so much has been taken,” says Marinakis. “And language is something that is a pretty sensitive topic right now because it is endangered, and because there is the history of linguists coming in and documenting and not giving back.”
Saxon too suggests that, because of the history of residential schools and Indigenous language suppression, “there could sometimes be pain associated with Indigenous languages, that is shared by parents, and a stigma . . . People have been distanced from their language.”
While recognizing this issue, Saxon suggests that making this information more accessible through university courses could raise the profile of a language, giving more awareness to the general populace.
In the next few issues, the Martlet will further explore the work that is being done to revive the speaking of Indigenous languages.