Last year I asked readers to help me decide which language to focus on next: French or Punjabi. Well, I have to admit, I didn’t follow through on either plan! Although I have continued to use Duolingo for French vocabulary building, and have learned a few more Punjabi phrases from my in-laws, for a number of reasons, I have not taken on either language in a serious way. However, I did recently start attending classes for another language: hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.
What is hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and why should I learn it?
hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ is a dialect of what linguists call Halkomelem which is spoken by several First Nations* throughout what is now the Metro Vancouver area, as well as parts of Vancouver Island. It is part of the Salishan language family which consists of 23 related but different languages spoken by related but different Coast Salish peoples. It is the language of the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh nations, two of the First Nations with claims to the land I grew up on. According to the First Peoples Language Map data, there are no fluent speakers of hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and only seven semi-fluent speakers.
So why learn a language that only has seven speakers? If you follow our blog, you will know that I have written several times about the importance of Indigenous language revitalization and maintenance (for example, here and here). Language and culture cannot be separated, and we risk the loss of important historic, scientific, and sociocultural knowledge when languages are threatened. Language learning can be an important way for Indigenous people to connect with their cultural history and strengthen understanding of their personal and communal identity.
I also believe that for non-Indigenous people, learning an Indigenous language can be an important way to help build cultural bridges. I always try to learn some of the local language when I go to a new place because it is a respectful way to show that I am willing to share the communicative burden. So why not learn the local language of the place that I live? hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ might not be the lingua franca of Vancouver but it is the local language of this place. In my opinion, learning some of the local language is a way to show respect and build relationships. It also has the potential to help non-Indigenous people better understand the history and current issues for Indigenous peoples which is an important step toward reconciliation.
Indigenous languages in non-Indigenous communities
I have often remarked that had I learned the “Musqueam” names for the places around me, it may have led me to ask questions such as “why have the names been changed?”, “who are the Musqueam people?”, and “what is the history of the Musqueam community?”. Having those questions answered as a child might have encouraged a deeper understanding of the history between First Nations and settlers in my own community, an understanding that is crucial for authentic reconciliation to occur.
Recently, the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Canadian residential schools system have been released, along with several recommendations. They include recommendations to increase Aboriginal history and cultural content across the curriculum. Although, as far as I know, there aren’t recommendations around teaching Aboriginal languages to all students, I believe this would be a simple way to begin to build better understandings and relationships. In recent news, the Prince Rupert School District in northern British Columbia announced that, starting in September, all students in the district will study the local language, Sm’algyax. I hope this will be the first of many announcements of this kind.
Non-Indigenous learners in Indigenous communities
One issue I have been grappling with is whether settlers learning Indigenous languages might be, or perceived to be, yet another intrusion on Indigenous communities. I have my reasons for wanting to learn and for why I think it’s important, but do the local community members feel the same way? I want to be very careful that I am not imposing my views or needs on the local community, as settlers have done for hundreds of years! I think this is something that non-Indigenous learners should consider. It is important to ensure that the community is interested in having non-members learn the language, and that you do not dominate the language-learning space.
I’m grateful that the Tsleil-Waututh have an open-door policy for their hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ classes. The atmosphere is welcoming and fun – especially because they use Where Are Your Keys, an adventure game-like series of techniques to learn language quickly with the help of sign language. In just a couple of classes, I’ve learned to introduce myself, count, ask and state what things are, and express what I want. I’m looking forward to more and want to thank my classmates and teachers! hay ce:p q̓ə!
*I use several different terms throughout this article which are defined in more detail here. I tend to use the word Indigenous when referring to all First Peoples around the world and Canadian terms such as First Nations when referring to the Canadian context. Also, the ideas expressed in this article are part of the learning process for me as a student of Indigenous education issues, and I welcome any corrections, questions, comments, or other feedback.