Saving a language from extinction 

First Nation working with school board to keep Squamish language alive

For understatement, you could perhaps call Charlene Williams a teacher.

But at the Squamish Nation Totem Hall, they know this 30-year-old aboriginal language and cultural instructor is much more than that.

Charlene Williams is hope.

Williams is one of the few young people in the Squamish Nation who can speak the Squamish language (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim), a language that is on the verge of extinction.

Out of the roughly 4,000 Squamish Nation members, there are only 15 people who can speak the language fluently.

In the school system, Williams is part of an ambitious program to bring aboriginal education and culture into the classrooms. Once a week after school, she also teaches the language and the culture for an hour-and-a-half to aboriginal kids at the Squamish Nation Totem Hall on Highway 99.

She was once a student at the same hall, learning the language from her elders. Now, she wants to do her part in saving the language from what seems like imminent extinction. She almost speaks of the language like a loved one who needs care.

"For us, this is the most important thing," she said, gently putting her hand to her heart. "If we lose our language, we lose our culture."

In the 19 th century, the residential school system decimated the aboriginal language and culture. In an attempt to integrate First Nations into mainstream Canadian culture an "aggressive assimilation" policy was adopted. The policy prohibited students from speaking their native language.

But reversing the damage is proving to be an ongoing and an onerous task.

First People's Heritage, Language and Culture Council is a provincial Crown Corporation dedicated to First Nations' languages, arts, and culture.

A May 2010 report released by the corporation found that B.C. had a rich diversity of native languages, but almost all of them are "severely endangered."

Of all the 32 languages and 59 dialects, fluent speakers make up only 5.1 per cent of the entire native population in B.C. And among these, the majority are elders. By 2015, that number could be as low as one per cent.

Just like other native languages, a revivalist project for the Squamish language is hindered by the fact that it's primarily an oral language.

In the 1950s, the Dutch linguist Aert J. Kuipers worked on the first comprehensive grammar of the Squamish language. In 1968, two researchers, Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy, collaborated to devise a writing system for the language.

"They created a vocabulary for us," said Alice Guss, one of the educators at the Squamish Nation.

Guss, who is also a great-great granddaughter of hereditary Chief Joe Capilano, is a language instructor at the Squamish Nation pre-school and day care.

She hopes to pass the language to more than 25 students, but says one of the challenges for new learners is simply the way words are spoken in the Squamish language.

"They have to practice these muscles," she said, hands pointing to her throat. "It's more guttural and with lisps."

After school, where English is the language of communication and instruction, learning another language can be difficult. But Guss says some students develop a knack for it early on.

"Some just have the gift for it and then we tell them all the time why it's important to learn it. It's the language of our fathers and our grandfathers," Guss said.

Another interventionist strategy is to bring aboriginal culture into the school system. Proponents say it's the best way to instill pride for their culture in aboriginal students and to create respect for that same culture in non-aboriginal students.

Juanita Coltman, the aboriginal educator for School District 48, says the school system has tried to immerse aboriginal education and culture in the school system for the past 15 years.

The shared learning program attempts to weave aboriginal education in the school from kindergarten to Grade 12. Another program focussed mainly on aboriginal students, teaching them aspects of their own culture with a strong focus on instilling pride.

Another strategy is to have more students like Williams who can pass on the knowledge to the younger generation. Williams is now working towards a degree in linguistics at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.

She is hopeful that a new written system and innovative learning strategies can help preserve her language, but she also knows that more than anything else, what will preserve the language is someone like her, someone who can pick up the torch, just like she did, and pass it on future generations.




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