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

Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)

Trena White, co-founder of Page Two, a full-service publishing agency specializing in nonfiction books, gave us a tour of some of the trends in trade book publishing at the March Editors BC meeting.

Subject trends, like adult colouring books, which peaked in mid-2016 or so and have since declined, or the imported Danish trend of hygge, which was particularly popular in late 2016, can be interesting but usually pass within a year or two. White wanted to focus her talk on the broader changes in the publishing landscape.

“Traditional publishing is great,” said White, in that the industry is committed to best practices in editing and design. But when White and co-founder Jesse Finkelstein launched Page Two in 2013, it was out of a recognition that traditional publishing, which tends to be technophobic and slow to react to change, doesn’t serve everyone or every book. There are legitimate reasons people might want to self-publish, and Page Two wanted to help authors and organizations publish professionally by fully embracing all things digital and being interested in changes in publishing.

White highlighted a few key trends: Continue reading “Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)”

Nick Routley—Infographics and data visualization (Editors BC meeting)

Nick Routley is creative director at Visual Capitalist, a company that uses visual storytelling techniques to bring life to topics in business and investing. He spoke at the February Editors BC meeting about what goes into a good infographic.

Infographics are visual articles: they tell a story with graphics and often involve one or more data visualizations. For the many people who are visual learners, text-heavy storytelling doesn’t meet their needs. Infographics offer stories that are engaging, data driven, shareable, and succinct. Continue reading “Nick Routley—Infographics and data visualization (Editors BC meeting)”

A behind-the-scenes look at the Blue Pencil (Editors BC meeting)

Lower Mainland editors have probably heard of the Vancouver Public Library’s Blue Pencil sessions but may not know what they involve. At January’s Editors BC meeting, moderator Wendy Barron and a panel of editors who’ve participated in them—Sarah Robins, Erin Parker, Meagan Dyer, and Nancy Tinari—set out to demystify the program and encourage other editors to volunteer. Continue reading “A behind-the-scenes look at the Blue Pencil (Editors BC meeting)”

Cookbook editing (Editors BC meeting)

October’s Editors BC meeting featured a panel on cookbook editing including

Continue reading “Cookbook editing (Editors BC meeting)”

Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues

Greg Younging, member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and publisher of Theytus Books, led an engaging, eye-opening seminar on Indigenous editorial issues for members of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), which invited Editors BC to join in. Younging was Assistant Director of Research for the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and is chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Creator’s Rights Alliance. His seminar was a perfect balance of important historical context and practical suggestions. I’ll do my best to recap the highlights, but if you ever get the opportunity to attend this seminar or more in-depth training through the Indigenous Editors Circle (formerly Aboriginal Editors Circle), I’d highly recommend taking it. Continue reading “Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues”

Dialogue on editing Indigenous writing (Editors Canada 2016)

Jordan Abel, Nisga’a poet, editor, and PhD candidate, and Ann-Marie Metten, managing editor at Talonbooks, had a conversation about telling Indigenous stories and about establishing good working relationships between non-Indigenous editors and Indigenous authors.

They began the session, as the conference itself did, with an acknowledgement that we were meeting on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, but they also wondered whether such an acknowledgement was truly helpful. At some events it’s the only time Aboriginal people are mentioned. Abel said that the practice is a courtesy but can be a problem if it’s done out of routine. The acknowledgement is fine as long as it’s not the only action you take to include Indigenous people. Continue reading “Dialogue on editing Indigenous writing (Editors Canada 2016)”

Graphic novels and comics: creation, editing, and promotion (Editors Canada 2016)

Once relegated to nerdy subculturedom, comics have finally come to be accepted as a legitimate literary and art form, said Jeff Burgess, who coordinates continuing studies visual arts at Langara College. Tintin expert Benoît Peeters’s appointment as Comics Professor at Lancaster University shows a growing academic commitment to studying comic book art, and the vibrant comics landscape has birthed such collaborations as Angel Catbird, co-created by Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas.

At the Editors Canada conference, Burgess moderated a panel featuring Jeff Ellis, Jonathon Dalton, and Robin Thompson, all artists in the genre and instructors in Langara’s Graphic Novels and Comix certificate program. Continue reading “Graphic novels and comics: creation, editing, and promotion (Editors Canada 2016)”

Herbert Rosengarten—The tyranny of the copytext: the trials and tribulations of textual editing (Editors BC meeting)

Herbert Rosengarten is a professor emeritus and former head of UBC’s English department. A textual editor and authority on the work of the Brontës, he contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and co-compiled the entry on the Brontës in The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Rosengarten spoke at a recent Editors BC meeting about textual criticism and scholarly editing.

Textual editors study the creation of a literary work from manuscript to print and through its various editions. They also supplement the text with annotations, translations, and explanations of allusions or quotations that the reader might not be familiar with. “The goal is to present all the information a person needs to understand and interpret the work,” said Rosengarten. Continue reading “Herbert Rosengarten—The tyranny of the copytext: the trials and tribulations of textual editing (Editors BC meeting)”

Editing global English (Editors BC meeting)

Robin-Eliece Mercury is an editor and applied linguist who taught composition in Japan and the Czech Republic. At the November Editors BC meeting she moderated a panel discussion about the particular challenges and considerations when editing authors who are not native English speakers. On the panel were

  • Glauce Fleury, a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Vancouver. Previously she worked as a journalist in her home country of Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
  • Carol Zhong, who has taught English and edited in Canada and abroad, including in China and Hong Kong, and now specializes in academic work.
  • Joel Heng Hartse, an applied linguist who lectures in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

Mercury framed the discussion by asking us to think about whether our national association has role to play in creating guidelines, strategies, or tools to help editors approach this kind of editing. “All of us have our personal preferences or policies when editing copy from a non-native speaker of English,” she said. “How can be aware of and sensitive to non-native speakers of English” while meeting the expectations of those who publish and read their work?

Heng Hartse began by pointing out that he’s the only non-editor on the panel, although the work of academics and editors does overlap a lot. His research interests are in the globalization of English and World Englishes. “The pluralization is very intentional,” said Heng Hartse. “It’s ideologically purposeful. We want to emphasize the pluricentricity of English. English is increasingly not the sole possession of a single people, nation, or cultural group.”

Just as we wouldn’t say that a Canadian speaks worse English than an Australian, we can apply the same attitude toward those who speak Singapore English or Indian English, for example. World Englishes “recognizes each variety as legitimate and having its own norms,” said Heng Hartse, which can lead to some interesting controversies. We are seeing more situations in which writer, editor, and audience are working with different norms.

“What responsibility do individual editors have to learn about World Englishes and their role in the global context?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“It’s like any other aspect of professional development,” said Zhong. “We need to become familiar with what they are, in what context they’re used, how we can best serve writers and their audience—with sensitivity.” Ultimately, we have to make sure that the document’s readable. “Other academics all over the world have to understand what someone in Singapore has written.”

Fleury wanted editors to understand that “nonstandard is not a mistake. The challenge is to understand what is standard for the audience.”

Zhong says that tries as much as she can to maintain an expert’s voice and style, but context is important. Sometimes authors will write a term or word that they’ve heard somewhere but haven’t used in the right way. Her example was an author’s use of “significant others” to refer to other important people. She explained how that term is usually used and suggested other possibilities that might be clearer to the reader.

Zhong also adjusts her level of editing depending on the purpose of the document. “I edit course material for the Open University of Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes place the place of a lecture, so it has to be accessible to the students. And it has a certain degree of informality that you don’t get in a journal article. So I edit more intrusively: students have to understand the material without the instructor.”

“I query a lot,” said Zhong. “You have to be as clear as possible and always give options. ‘Did you mean X, or did you mean Y? If you meant X, you’ll need a comma here. If you meant Y, maybe you could say it this way.’”

“Is it fair for editors to assume that non-native speakers of English need extensive editing?” Mercury asked Fleury.

“No, it’s not,” she said. “You will find native speakers who are working as writers and need extensive editing. It’s not a problem of second-language speakers or writers. It’s a misconception that second-language writers are not good writers that will give more trouble than pleasure to editors.” Those who are serious about a language, Fleury said, will never stop studying it. “If you can choose, just work with the right writers.”

“How can we edit with a sensitivity to authors who are non-native speakers of English, when standard English is expected?” Mercury asked Heng Hartse.

“The first thing is not to assuming a non-native speaker has a deficit compared with a native speaker,” he said. “There are many ‘literacy brokers’ between author and publication.” The process could involve many people—family members, colleagues, editors—“all of us making contributions to the text.”

“Approach their work in an open-minded way,” said Heng Hartse. “We need to step back and be reflexive about our perceptions. Build an ethic for yourself of continually asking—What is style? What is grammar? What is just a pet peeve? It’s incumbent on us to develop a way of dealing with other people’s text that respect them, while bringing our expertise.”

“What’s your approach in getting agreement with you and the author in terms of how far you would edit the text stylistically?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“Authors normally tell me what they want me to do,” she said. Some authors want her to focus only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. “If you have any questions, ask. Don’t go ahead and make changes.”

Heng Hartse warned us to be aware of “rules” that are actually a product of folk linguistics—like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “None of us are immune to the ideological dimension of making language choices,” he said. “That’s where we have to be careful.”

Mercury asked Fleury if she’s encountered editors’ prejudices as a writer whose first language isn’t English.

“Sometimes an editor will say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ Was there a prejudice or an expectation that it wouldn’t be good? There’s a misconception that native speakers are better writers in that language and that non-native speakers wouldn’t be good writers and would need a lot of work. That’s behind why people are surprised.”

“I’m aware of my weaknesses and strengths,” said Fleury. “I wouldn’t submit anything as a final product if it’s not good enough. If I don’t think I have the skills to write about a specific topic, I will refer a friend.”

“My two prejudices,” said Heng Hartse, “are that (1) I’m right, and (2) I understand what the writer means.”—and it’s important to check these, he said.

Mercury asked the audience if it would be helpful for an organization like Editors Canada to synthesize some of the considerations we’d discussed into guidelines to help the growing number of editors working with non-native speakers of English.

Ruth Wilson responded: “I haven’t heard anything tonight that wouldn’t apply to any thoughtful, sensitive editing in any other discipline. All of the [Professional Editorial] Standards apply equally to this. We’re just opening a window to a new discipline.”

“It’s good to have an open discussion about bias,” said Wilson, but what we’re talking about isn’t a new skill set but an expansion of existing skills.”

Kyra Nabeta asked the panel if they considered it important to know the writer’s language and culture.

“It’s important to be familiar with it,” said Zhong. “I feel I have an advantage. I’m familiar with historical events, place names, expressions, people… It’s not as if you can’t learn that, but for me it’s like a shortcut, because I have that background that gives me an advantage.”

(The evening ended with a few questions about editing translations that got directed to me. For interested readers, I’ve summarized some past sessions about writing for translation, Global English, and editing books in translation. Or check out my posts under the “translation” tag.)