Language revitalization work is key at UVic and beyond

Op-eds Opinions

Jakob Derksen has lived most of his life on Coast Salish
territory and is a graduate of the Certificate in Aboriginal Language

The disappearance of a language is a loss of irreplaceable human knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, language extinction is not a well-known issue and is rarely talked about outside of affected communities. Linguists predict that as many as 50 per cent of the 6000-plus languages currently spoken may be extinct by 2100. Roughly translated, that means the last speaker of a given language passes from the Earth every two weeks.

The noted ethnographer Wade Davis has long spoken out against the difficulties faced by marginalized communities struggling to maintain their ancestral languages. Davis, in lectures at UVic and elsewhere, notes that the loss of a language is equivalent to the clearcutting of a forest. So great is the loss to humanity that the late Ken Hale, a highly regarded linguist from MIT (the Michigan Institute of Technology), compared the loss of a language to bombing the Louvre.

National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project has compiled lists of “language hot spots” denoting where languages are dangerously close to extinction. British Columbia is on that list. To anyone who has been paying attention to the disastrous effects that colonialism and the residential school system has had on First Nations communities, this is unsurprising, although sad. Speakers of ancestral languages in many B.C. First Nations communities have dwindled to a handful.

However, there are rays of hope. Since 2004, UVic has offered a Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization (CALR) through its Continuing Studies department. In partnership with the En’okwin Centre in the Okanagan, the CALR program provides tools that students can use—and are using—to help them play a key role in revitalizing languages in their communities.

Moreover, UVic has a number of professors in the Linguistics Department who are committed to language revitalization efforts in communities around B.C. Dr. Lorna Williams, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning,  was instrumental in producing the 2010 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages. The report revealed that First Nations languages in B.C. are critically endangered. Additionally, UVic professor Chris Lalonde published research documenting a correlation between language loss and suicide among young people in Aboriginal communities, which further punctuates the issue. Furthermore, many First Nations communities are committed to language revitalization projects and are passionate about passing along their language to future generations. The Brentwood Bay–based First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) is a driving force behind language revitalization programs in B.C. Established in 1990 through the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Act, FPCC is a First Nations run Crown Corporation whose mission is to provide leadership for the revitalization of First Nations languages, culture and arts. Despite a recent 26 per cent reduction in funding that resulted in cuts to a number of important programs, the FPCC website still provides information and links to a number of different programs, initiatives and publications.

FirstVoices, an internationally recognized web archive of Indigenous languages and web-based services, is among the more notable initiatives found on the FPCC website. FirstVoices co-founder STOLȻEȽ (also known as John Elliott) has received recognition for his efforts both as a language teacher and as a proponent of the use of technology for teaching language. Although originally influenced by his father, the late David Elliott Sr., STOLȻEȽ’s foray into the use of digital video and computer led him and his colleague Peter Brand to develop To date FirstVoices has over 60 Indigenous languages archived.

The FPCC is also involved in the Endangered Languages Project (ELP). ELP has been asked to participate in language projects as far away as China, and the FPCC was asked to play a lead role in a Google-initiated online language network. ELP promotes linguistic diversity,  recording endangered languages and sharing research related to revitalization efforts, including best practices for working with languages under threat.

Closer to home, the FPCC is also involved in a collaboration with the Royal B.C. Museum. Slated to open in June 2014, Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in B.C. has the potential to bring the subject of endangered languages into the realm of public discourse. Our Living Languages will feature dynamic audio and video presentations, a key component of which will be stories about the efforts of elders and language champions like Williams and STOLȻEȽ.

Language revitalization is both a literal and metaphorical life-and-death struggle. With no fewer than 34 Indigenous languages in B.C. we remain Canada’s most linguistically diverse region. However, this remains a little known fact outside of linguistic circles. Fluency rates in First Nations communities hovers at about five per cent, with elders making up the largest group of speakers still fluent in these languages. It will be crucial over the coming decades to encourage public discourse over language preservation and how it applies to B.C.’s First Nations. For now, we can all be proud of the work being done at UVic.