Jonny Williams (left) Swo-wo Billy, and Charlene George work on an assignment for their Squamish Adult Immersion course.

learning

New cohort of Squamish speakers hopes to revitalize language

February 13, 2017
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By Ian Bryce

In a classroom at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus, Swo-wo Billy, Charlene George and Jonny Williams speak casually in the Squamish language about their weekend plans. This slice-of-life may seem ordinary but these students are helping revive a language on the brink of extinction.

Seven years ago, fewer than 10 fluent Squamish speakers existed and that number continued to dwindle.

“It’s skipped a generation,” says George. “My grandpa was excited as the last time he had heard someone speaking Squamish to him was his late grandmother.”

In 2016, Kwi Awt Stelmexw, a non-profit organization from the Squamish Nation community, partnered with SFU’s First Nations Languages Centre and Department of Linguistics to launch a two-year, full-time, adult immersion program in the Squamish language. Their goal: to produce 15 fluent Squamish language speakers each year, growing the number of speakers to 157 by 2027.

George says that the program has been inspiring to the entire community, as well as the students.

“We’re a group of young people with the strength of our elders supporting us,” says George. “We’re taking our language back and we’re holding it and keeping it—something that was taken away from us and was stolen.”

After 14 weeks of immersion, with seven hours of class five days a week, the first cohort is comfortable speaking about everyday topics in Squamish.

A challenge with full Squamish immersion, says Billy, is the lack of resources outside of the course.

“When you’re learning French or Spanish, there are programs, radio and television shows that you can listen to and watch to immerse yourself in the language,” he says. “But there aren’t any programs available in Squamish.”

Students in the cohort are set to complete their first year this April. They are already planning future studies, using the program as a launching point into post-secondary education.

“I would like to pursue a degree in First Nations studies or business administration,” says Williams, who recently graduated from high school. “I’d also want to get my instructor’s diploma and teach Squamish as well.”

For Billy, the program is an opportunity to learn and pass down the language to the next generation.

“After I finish the course, I really want to focus on teaching my one-year-old daughter as much as I can so she can grow up learning the language easily,” says Billy. “I want to make sure she doesn’t have to search to learn the language of her people.”

The program is currently accepting applications for the Sept. 2017 to April 2018 cohort. The deadline for applications is Feb. 13.