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Susan Russell

Susan Russell’s love of farming and a busy career as a phonetician and instructor didn’t stop her from completing a PhD.

Striving to preserve Aboriginal languages

October 8, 2009

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With a flock of 17 sheep on her Barnston Island farm, a full-time faculty job at SFU’s Kamloops satellite campus, and six grandchildren, Susan Russell has a lot to keep her occupied.

But she still found the time to earn a PhD at age 63.

It all stems from the phonetician’s decades-long obsession with how people produce sounds and learn languages, along with a "minor" obsession that includes singing, choral conducting and teaching voice. She has even learned Inuit throat singing, although she doesn’t do it anymore.

But Russell’s current passion is finding ways to support and sustain B.C.’s First Nations languages. Her PhD thesis examined how people interact in endangered-language classrooms. "These languages only exist if people use them, and the classroom is one of the main places where these languages do live," explains Russell.

"How people behave in the classroom has an effect on the language through what they say and how they say it."

Russell teaches core linguistics courses at the Kamloops campus, but she also travels the province to teach linguistics and foster language learning in First Nations communities.

She has just created a course in conversation analysis in the Shuswap language and is teaching phonetics in Bella Bella for those interested in learning the local Heiltsukvla language. With a different language or language family every few miles along B.C.’s coast, most of which don’t share the same sounds, structure or vocabulary, Russell is keen to preserve as many as possible.

"We live here, not in Shakespeare’s England or in Paris," she says. "We’re living in areas that belong to cultures we know little about and to languages that are underappreciated. But I think there is change now—we need to reclaim that knowledge while there’s still time."

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