Nicki Benson—Reclaiming Indigenous languages (Editors BC meeting)

Nicki Benson is founder of Esperanza Education and education initiatives manager at Kwi Awt Stelmexw, an organization to advance the language and culture of the Squamish people. She spoke at an Editors BC meeting about Indigenous language reclamation.

As the daughter of Jewish immigrants, Benson is not Indigenous herself, but earlier in her language education career she worked in Peru to research bilingual education for Indigenous children there, and she’s applied the best practices from that experience to her work with Kwi Awt Stelmexw.

First, some numbers

Before colonization, there were an estimated 450 languages spoken in what is now Canada. Today, there are 60. Only three—Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut—are predicted to survive without some kind of deliberate intervention.

In BC alone, there are 34 Indigenous languages, reflecting a cultural diversity made possible by the province’s challenging geography and abundant natural resources, which meant populations didn’t have to travel far to find what they needed. These Indigenous languages are in seven language families, with Haida, spoken in Haida Gwaii, and Ktunaxa, spoken in the Kootenays, being language isolates. The Indigenous languages are not necessarily the first languages of people in these communities anymore; many people lost the use of their language because of forced assimilation policies.

Within Vancouver, traditionally the shared territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish people, two languages—Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (one of the three dialects of Halkomelem)—have been spoken for thousands of years. However, today each of those languages has only seven first-language fluent speakers each.

Why reclaim a language?

Benson is careful not to use morbid language like “endangered” and “dying” to describe languages like Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓. Even “revitalization” implies that something has died and that you’re bringing it back to life. Instead, she talks about “reclamation”: the language is there to be taken back.

Language is an important vehicle for culture and identity, and reclaiming a language can contribute to community health and healing. These languages were not lost as part of a natural process: Indigenous people were killed or displaced, they died from diseases introduced by colonizers, or they were subjected to attempts at assimilation like residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. Culture and language influence health outcomes: communities with higher numbers of Indigenous language speakers have lower rates of substance use and teen suicide.

Other reasons for reclaiming languages are that they carry important historic and scientific information and that, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), maintaining one’s traditional language is a human right. There are calls to protect Indigenous languages just as French is protected in Quebec, Acadia, and other French-speaking parts of the country.

How does language reclamation differ from other kinds of language education?

Indigenous languages have historically been marginalized, and that marginalization continues: whereas it’s easy for people to understand why someone would study Mandarin or Spanish, say, for travel or trade, learning Indigenous languages to promote the survival of the language and culture seems to have fewer practical advantages, so Indigenous language reclamation can face a shortage of funding and learning materials.

Also contributing to the lack of learning materials is the fact that most of the languages were oral, with no tradition of writing. Many Indigenous groups are sensitive about committing their language onto paper: historically, when Indigenous people were asked to sign paper, they were unknowingly giving up their rights and lands. Further, many cultural traditions are meant only for ceremony and are never meant to be recorded or transmitted in writing.

Today, different Indigenous languages use different orthographies: many were adopted after non-Indigenous linguists and anthropologists worked with the communities to develop them, and so they carry residues of colonization, but most communities acknowledge that their language has a better chance of being perpetuated if it is written down. Some languages, like Dene, use a syllabary, whereas others use some form of adapted alphabet, whether based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an alphabet that makes it easier to type the language on mainstream keyboards. hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, for example, uses a system close to IPA and so is transparent about its pronunciation, but Hul’q’umi’num’, the Vancouver Island dialect, opted for an orthography that would be more practical to type.

Another challenge for reclamation is that there are few teachers, and many of them are elderly. They’re limited in how much time and energy they can devote to educating new speakers.

How does language reclamation work?

Linguist Joshua Fishman travelled the world studying reclamation and, based on what he observed, developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) to describe the various stages at which a language can be. Other linguists expanded the scale, with level 0 being “International,” where the language is used in several countries for many different functions to 10 being “Extinct.” When reclaiming a language, you want to meet languages where they are, then support them in reaching the next level up. It is too ambitious for a language at level 7 (“Shifting”) where the child-bearing generation knows the language but are not transmitting it to their children, to move directly to level 4 (“Educational”), say, where the language is taught through public school and literacy is considered sustainable. Instead, we want to help it reach level 6, where the language is used by all generations but not necessarily outside the family.

At this point, when the language is being spoken in the family but not at school or in the media, it is considered orally sustainable. The opposite is not true: language taught in school but not used in the home is not considered sustainable.

What works in British Columbia?

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council has supported a number of language reclamation initiatives:

  • Language nests began in New Zealand to help Indigenous groups reclaim Māori and have been incredibly successful there. Some communities in BC have adopted the model, in which parents bring their children to immersion preschools, where elders speak the language to both parents and children and only that language is used.
  • Master–apprentice programs pair a teacher with a single learner or a small group where participants must learn for a certain number of hours but can do so on a flexible schedule. These programs make the most of the masters’ limited time and availability.
  • FirstVoices released a series of keyboards for Indigenous orthography that can be used on desktop and mobile.

Across the province, Indigenous communities have established school programs, which vary across the province. In some districts, Indigenous languages are offered to all students, including non-Indigenous children. Squamish students can opt out of learning French and learn Sḵwx̱wú7mesh instead. The most successful programs are immersion programs, such as the one at Chief Atahm School in Chase.

Kwi Awt Stelmexw, the organization Benson works for, was founded by Khelsilem, and it:

  • runs workshops to help Squamish people reconnect with their culture,
  • works with people in the community to develop a strategic plan to develop their language resources,
  • a “Languages in the Homes” project, which recognizes barriers people face in attending language classes and brings the language education to them,
  • a Squamish place names map, and
  • a full-time adult immersion program hosted by SFU.

Benson elaborated on the place name recognition work at Oh the Places You Should Know, showing, for example, how the name Ch’ich’iyuy (“twins”)—the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name for what settlers call the Lions—carries with it the story of how a coming-of-age celebration for the chief’s beloved daughters helped broker peace with tribes to the north. “Place names can be really significant,” said Benson. They can give insight into cultures and offer different perspectives on the importance of place.

Audience questions

I asked Benson about the parallels and differences between Hebrew revitalization efforts at the end of the nineteenth century and Indigenous language reclamation. She said Hebrew’s revival is considered a great success story, made possible by the tireless efforts of activists. Indigenous language reclamation is using some of the same strategies—including language documentation and dedicated spaces for immersion—but key differences make it more challenging. For Hebrew (and for Māori in New Zealand), there is only one language that people focus on, and the fact that Israel is an independent political state made it easier for government to enact policies ensuring the language would get used. In contrast, with 34 Indigenous languages in BC, different communities must compete for many of the same resources, and their reclamation efforts don’t have as much political support.

Another audience member asked whether settlers are welcome in Indigenous language classes. Benson said that opinions differ and that the best thing to do would be to consult the community. Some communities welcome everyone, because they recognize that getting as many people as possible to speak the language increases the odds of its preservation. Other communities accept settler learners as long as they are not taking away the opportunity from an Indigenous person.

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Related post: Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues

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