Language Love on the West Coast
Last month the government of British Columbia announced that their 2018 budget would include $50 million to support Indigenous language revitalization across the province. I’m very excited, of course, as there is more and more support for the work I am involved in. Among other projects, I’ve been working with the Ministry of Education on developing policy and a curriculum template for Indigenous language learning in BC public schools. While the work has taken time, as it involves consultation with many communities and stakeholders, there’s a big push now to finally finalize drafts to pilot this fall!
Did you know?
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council has an awesome interactive language map of BC where you can find information on each of BC’s languages. Here are some of the key facts to know about this linguistically rich province:
- There are 34 Indigenous languages in BC, divided into 7 language families.
- There are 2 language isolates spoken in BC, Ktunaxa and X̱aad Kil (Haida) – these languages are completely unique and not related to any other language in the world.
- There are two languages Indigenous to Vancouver, Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.
- All of BC’s Indigenous languages were oral languages with no writing systems before colonization. Today unique writing systems have been developed for each of the languages.
- All of BC’s languages are critically endangered – each have less than 1000 fluent speakers, and about half have less than 50 speakers.
- However, the number of semi-fluent speakers is increasing (between 2010-2014 there was an increase of over 3000 new speakers!), indicating that language revitalization efforts are working.
- There is a lot more fascinating information in this Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages.
- In addition to increased funds, the current government has a mandate to “develop full-course offerings in Aboriginal languages” in public education. The Ministry of Education already has approved curricula for 17 of BC’s Indigenous languages, and is now working on a policy and curriculum template to facilitate Indigenous language learning across the province from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
The 34 Indigenous languages spoken in BC today represent 60% of all the Indigenous languages spoken in Canada. Why, you may ask, is BC so linguistically diverse? It has to do with the terrain and the natural abundance of this land. The rough geography (huge mountains, distant islands, etc.) made it difficult to navigate across large swaths of land like on the prairies, so people tended to stay closer to home. Plus, there wasn’t a great need to travel because of the abundant sources of food found in BC’s ocean, rivers, and forests. One of the reasons that Indigenous languages are so important is because of their ties to the land; each language is uniquely shaped by the land it comes from, and uniquely contains scientific, historical, and cultural information about those lands that is not held anywhere else.
Why the money matters
If you need convincing about why language revitalization is important, start here. The devastating assimilation policies of Canada’s colonial governments have deliberately robbed Indigenous peoples of their language and culture. That’s why, as Maori language activist Hana O’Regan taught me, it’s important to be just as deliberate about taking them back! And to quote my friend Khelsilem, the government’s financial commitment to support language revitalization “is a tangible, meaningful investment… showing a commitment to reconciliation”. There is a lot of work to do to get all of BC’s Indigenous languages to a place of strength, and this work will necessarily be led by Indigenous people. But it’s a lot easier when the government is actually on your side! Time will tell what the impacts of this funding will be, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction!