by Cam Martin
In any culture, especially those that value oral tradition, language is the most precious commodity. Language is the seat of our perception. Our history, our world, are all shaped by language. The stories of the elders are our guides, they represent the linguistic connection to the past. But soon, instead of words of wisdom, there will be silence.
The state of Aboriginal languages is currently in a crisis. Investigations by First Nations communities have shown that this problem continues to be ignored. Most of the twenty five or more Aboriginal languages of British Colombia have only between a dozen and a hundred fluent speakers left, most of which are above the age of forty. Many of these people rarely speak their language because they fear they will not be understood and also because English has become the “power language” of Canada. Because of this hold that English has on our day to day activities, virtually no children are raised with knowledge of their native tongue. At present, with a few exceptions in other provinces, only a couple of languages of the Dene family (Carrier and Chilcotin) have fluent speakers of younger age, and are currently used in the home on a daily basis.
One organization that has contributed greatly to the preservation of First Nations languages is the First Nations Education Steering Council. The council was formed in 1992 and its mandate is to facilitate discussion about education matters affecting First Nations in BC by disseminating information and soliciting input from First Nations.
Within the FNESC is an Aboriginal Language Subcommittee. This committee is specifically focused on language revitalization. The committee works on initiatives to increase the availability and quality of Aboriginal language education. The FNESC website, which produces monthly newsletters and updates about First Nations education, is also a source of many free documents that help inform the casual reader to their revitalization efforts.
Their wide reaching program help to develop the ways that First Nations languages are taught and determine who is qualified to teach. They have developed an Aboriginal teacher education program which helps to certify any who is interested in becoming a teacher of Aboriginal language. The program includes linguistics courses, First Nations studies courses, as well as some distance education courses.
For the proactive community member, there are guides and workbooks to start your own language revitalization project. Two key guides in this endeavor are the Aboriginal Language Program Planning Handbook, and also the workbook that accompanies this text.
These two guides outline ways of identifying language resources in your area, planning formal language education. They also outline strategies for language planning. These include giving the language official status within the community or Nation, ensuring the language is spoken at meetings and hearings, and beginning education of the language at preschool. They also include more technical aspects of language analysis such as creating and standardizing vocabularies and creating a writing system.
In addition to these manuals, there are also further technical information for the preservation of language materials located on the FNESC website. Much of the data used in research and preservation of Aboriginal languages are audio recordings. There are extensive procedures outlined in order to ensure accurate audio representations, while still allowing room for dialectical variation. The guide outlines anthropological issues related to recording such as accessibility and format, allowing for the maximum amount of use to be applied to the material. The procedures of preservation are simplified for the lay person so that a community could take part in the important project of language revitalization.
All of these procedures and initiatives are used to help eliminate what the FNESC calls “language shift”. The shift is “the systemic exchange of one’s distinct historical language for a different, often more contemporary one”. Essentially the goal is not to increase the number of second language speakers of Aboriginal languages but to rekindle these languages as our primary means of communication. This will prevent the language shift from occurring, and we will not lose a valuable part of our culture.
Hopefully more media covverage will illuminate the need for language revitalization and offer some sources of information to help that journey. Visit www.fnesc.com for more information.