Marianne and Ron Ignace are collobarating on a seven-year SFU project with 22 community-based First Nations groups to preserve and teach B.C. and Yukon indigenous languages, many of which are in a critical state of decline.

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SSHRC grant sparks Aboriginal language preservation

June 06, 2013
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Marianne Ignace has made it her life’s work to collaborate with British Columbia and Yukon First Nations communities to preserve and teach Aboriginal languages and cultures—and that work has never been more urgent.

“First Nations languages are in a critical state of decline,” says the SFU anthropology, linguistics and First Nations studies associate professor and director of SFU’s new First Nations Language Centre (FNLC).

“The death of each elder who speaks the language represents the irretrievable loss of specific indigenous ways of speaking, of seeing the world and of communicating about the land and the physical and social environment.”

But thanks to a major new initiative led by Ignace with a $2.5-million partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) there is fresh hope for the region’s indigenous languages and the heritages they help preserve.

SFU will contribute $280,000 in cash and another $810,000 in goods, services and facilities to the seven-year project, including major contributions from the VP Research office, the SFU Library and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The seven-year project is a partnership between the FNLC and 22 community-based First Nations groups representing at least 11 languages that are dedicated to maintaining and revitalizing indigenous dialects.

Community language practitioners including elders, community linguists, researchers, learners and educators will engage with indigenous and non-indigenous multi-disciplinary academic researchers to co-produce knowledge and practices addressing the challenges of language loss and revitalization.

Specifically, the project will:

  • Develop, share and practice innovative ways of language documentation that combine linguistic and indigenous methodologies and fill gaps in existing data.
  • Conduct linguistic, ethnographic and psychological “language in use” research in First Nations communities among current speakers, semi-speakers and second-language learners to inform new ways of assessing fluency and proficiency.
  • Create interactive digital-media apps for language learning based on technology developed by SFU’s Stavros Niarchos New Media Lab to create the Hellenic studies department’s acclaimed Odysseas Greek language iPhone and iPad apps.
  • Develop protocols and procedures for digitization, safe storage and access of language materials to create safe repositories for First Nations language and cultural data.

“This project exemplifies SFU’s community-engaged strategic vision,” says VP Research Mario Pinto.

“It emphasizes building close community connections, fostering interdisciplinary research and knowledge mobilization while acknowledging and respecting Aboriginal peoples and cultures.

“And by training Aboriginal graduate students and engaging Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers from multi-disciplinary fields within First Nations communities it also advances the objectives of SFU’s Aboriginal Strategic Plan.”

Preserving and teaching indigenous languages in B.C. and the Yukon “is a huge challenge,” says Ignace. The region’s 30 or so First Nations languages are among the most complex intellectual structures on Earth involving eight separate linguistic families, some of which are as distinctive from each other as Japanese is from English.

“And that challenge has been compounded historically by a chronic lack of government funding for Aboriginal language preservation and education. This SSHRC grant will help us turn the tide.”

The project is a gratifying milestone for Ignace, who came to SFU from her native Germany in the late 1970s to pursue a PhD, completing her thesis on Haida discourse and social organization.

That research ignited an enduring passion for First Nations language and culture and led Ignace to B.C.'s interior to conduct research with Aboriginal communities in the Shuswap First Nation in the Interior, the home of her husband, Chief Ron Ignace, an SFU anthropology PhD alumnus who is also a collaborator on the project.  

In 1988, the pair founded SFU’s Kamloops satellite campus on Tk’emlups Indian Band lands. Featuring courses on the history, languages and culture of First Nations people, the award-winning program graduated some 500 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students before deteriorating infrastructure and unsustainable program costs prompted its closure in 2010. SFU continues to offer First Nations languages and First Nations Studies university courses in the Shuswap Nation, however, and in several other partner First Nations. 

At the same time, Ignace learned and taught her own eight children the Shuswap Nation's Secwepemc language and began working with other First Nations communities to revitalize their languages.

“We have a lot of work to do,” says Ignace.

“But I’m optimistic this new project will have a major impact on the preservation and revitalization of our Aboriginal languages and the cultures they sustain, for generations to come.”

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