Latest report on BC First Nations languages holds hope for future of revitalization | Spare News
The Morgan and Dool families are part of a growing trend of First Nations families in British Columbia speaking their native language at home.
A report released last week by the First Peoples Cultural Council (FPCC) on the status of BC’s indigenous languages indicates that more parents are raising their children at home using their indigenous language as their first language.
A trend that’s enticing CEO Tracey Herbert of BC-based FPCC.
“One of the key indicators of language modality is the language being transmitted in the home,” said Herbert, who acknowledges the increasing adult access to immersion programs to bring language into the home. “I think that’s really a key factor in focusing on conversation and speaking the language in our day-to-day settings, rather than focusing on literacy.”
In the past too much emphasis was placed on reading and writing indigenous languages.
FPCC is a provincial First Nations-led Crown Corporation dedicated to greater recognition and support of First Nations languages, arts and heritage. It is the only such provincial organization in the country.
For moms Cheyenne Morgan Gwa’amuuk and Roxanne (George) Dool, making an effort with their kids is important. Both women are adamant that they don’t want their children to have to work so hard to learn their languages.
Gwa’amuuk, who speaks Gitsenimx, says her language is “inseparable” from her cultural and land-based knowledge.
“It’s an essential part of your identity. I don’t think we can really separate language and culture,” she said.
Dool knows how important it is to keep their language alive. After all, her great-grandmother Ts’áts’elexwót was one of only two fluent languages in the community and was strong in the Halq’eméylem revival. Now there is only one fluent speaker in the community.
Surprisingly, however much time Dool grew up with Ts’áts’elexwót, she was never taught the language, only the occasional word.
“I was quite young when she died… I remember it was very emotional. As I grew up and found out how important language has become, how it’s a part of who we are as indigenous people, and how much of it we’ve lost, I felt that the only way for me was to… acknowledge my grandma and her hard work , was to help revitalize the language and help with language learning,” Dool said.
Neither Gwa’amuuk nor Dool consider themselves a fluent language. Although they are keen for their children to learn their native languages, both women point out that they must be conscious of speaking them at home and not slipping into English.
Gwa’amuuk speaks Gitsenimx with her children, four-year-old Skiltuu and nine-month-old Mason, when they play together.
“I think playful language is really important. If you make them enjoy the game then the language is just there. It’s not like they’re learning language. They play and the language is just there,” she said.
Dool has her three children – Keanu Ritchie, 15, and Brody, 5, and Ryder, 1 Dool – and her husband, Cody Dool, say two words to her in Halq’eméylem when they ask her for something. They also exchanged English for Halq’eméylem when it comes to saying thank you, please and welcome.
Gwa’amuuk says her partner Lance Williams is a “silent talker.” (This refers to someone who understands their language but does not yet speak). But he takes it. She estimates that around 70 percent of her household speaks Gitsenimx.
Dool is more conservative, saying that in her household “probably nowhere near” 50 percent speak Halq’eméylem. She is quick to point out that her children outperform adults with their vocabulary.
“It makes me really happy. It motivates me to keep learning. It motivates me to stay active in language learning. It makes me active to keep learning. It makes me active to keep teaching (them) because it’s not something I’m going to learn, write down and put away. It’s something we will use for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Like Dool, Gwa’amuuk says she will continue to study.
A desire to learn their languages and encourage intergenerational exchange is something both women see growing in their communities. This is also a finding supported by the Status of BC First Nations Languages report.
With improved opportunities for adults and children to learn their languages, the 2022 report finds an increase in numbers since the last report in 2018.
And that surge comes despite four years of turbulence caused by the coronavirus pandemic and evacuations due to floods and wildfires.
“We panned,” said Herbert. “First Nations people are very adaptable and resilient…They were able to find solutions and get on with the work.”
This work has been facilitated by increased funding from the federal and BC governments.
“Obviously, with this increased funding and support comes more opportunities, and BC First Nation individuals and communities are embracing these opportunities with enthusiasm,” said Herbert.
According to the report’s figures, there were two full-time immersion programs in 2018 and now eight such programs are offered in seven different languages. Since 2018, the number of adult learners aged 20 to 64 has increased by almost 2,000. Compared to 2018, there were three times as many full immersion sessions for early childhood children in 2022.
“The number of language learners has increased significantly, and we interpret that as we make progress,” Herbert said.
For the first time ever, the report includes data on 34 actively used languages in BC. According to the FPCC, there is one other language, Pentl’ach, which has not been in active use for several decades, is being revived and will form 35 First Nations languages in the province.
In order for the revitalization to continue more broadly, funding must be long-term and sustainable, says Herbert, and right now the level of funding is not meeting needs.
However, Herbert is encouraged by federal Indigenous Language Revival legislation and federal and BC legislation to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
She says reports like the one FCPP produces every four years — 2022 will be the fourth such report — help set benchmarks to communicate with funders and advocate for the work yet to be done.
Indigenous languages are about more than just words and communication, she says.
“It strengthens us across the board, our health, our family systems, our governance,” Herbert said.
“Languages come from the countryside and these languages only exist here. What I’ve heard from language learners and elders is that First Nations languages are part of our souls. Our elders say it is our birthright. I think people need to understand that our languages, which have thousands of years of indigenous knowledge, give us what we need to live really well in the land we come from.”
Dool says her work with her children is guided by her great-grandmother.
“I think she would be really proud and I think she would be really happy,” Dool said.