Preserving native languages

April 28, 2005, vol. 33, no. 1
By Diane Luckow



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B.C.'s First Nations languages are among the most complex intellectual constructs on the planet, according to SFU anthropologist and linguist Marianne Ignace.
 
There are about 30 languages belonging to eight separate linguistic families - some as different from each other as Japanese is from English - and Ignace has made it her life's work to preserve as many as possible.

That's why the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. recently honoured her with a 2005 career achievement award for her tireless work in documenting, and passing on to new generations, aboriginal languages and culture.

The award is well-earned. A native of Germany, Ignace came to SFU in the late 1970s to pursue a PhD, writing her thesis on Haida discourse and social organization. That research sparked a consuming interest in First Nations language and culture. She moved to B.C.'s interior to do research with tribal councils and bands in the Shuswap area, ultimately marrying the chief of the Shuswap nation.

Together with her new husband, Ron Ignace, she established an educational partnership between SFU and the Shuswap nation to launch a university program for aboriginal learners in the B.C. interior. It has since graduated almost 300 students, mostly aboriginals, with SFU degrees, diplomas and certificates.

Along the way, Ignace turned her attention to learning and preserving the Shuswap nation's waning Secwepemc language, even teaching her eight children (now aged 23 through 5) to understand and speak it. As well, she has collaborated with numerous other First Nations groups to record and revitalize their languages, create practical grammars, train teachers and establish language courses.
 
To lose aboriginal languages, she says, “is to lose the profound connection between language and culture and the way it expresses feeling and being which is, in some way, irreplaceable.”

Ignace is thrilled with the award, although she says, “I feel like I'm at the beginning of my career, with a lot of research still to write and complete.”

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