In the 1980s Marianne Ignace began audio recording the last generation of storytellers. When a language is lost so are the stories that pass on a people’s lessons about their land and how they live on it.

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Waking sleeping languages for silent speakers

September 17, 2019
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There are more than 30 Indigenous languages spoken in British Columbia although some are asleep, or close to it. Languages are said to “go to sleep” when there are no first speakers left.

For the past 30 years SFU linguistics professor Marianne Ignace, the director of SFU’s First Nations Language Centre and First Nations Languages Program (FNLP), has been running programs that strive to re-awaken and preserve Indigenous languages in B.C.

In October, the SFU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) honoured Ignace with its 2019 Cormack Teaching Award. Established by former FASS Dean Lesley Cormack, the award recognizes the passion and innovation that faculty bring to the classroom, and the difference they make to their students’ education.

In 1988 when very few institutions were delivering education in First Nations communities, professor Ignace teamed up with the Secwépemc (Shuswap) First Nation and community organizations in Kamloops, B.C. to create a program for teaching the Secwepemctsin language.

The program set up shop in Kamloops’ old Indian residential school and grew into the SFU Kamloops campus. Twenty students took courses in the first year. The next year the number of students doubled, and then doubled again the following year. The popular program then partnered with SFU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology to train adult Indigenous students in the community how to conduct research.

“The students wanted to learn their language through university credit courses, which was pretty much unheard of,” recalls Ignace. “So we partnered with the SFU Department of Linguistics to develop courses that were often taught by elders who were fluent speakers. They were sometimes co-taught or taught by people like myself who had linguistic training and also spoke the language.”

Of the approximately 450 students who graduated during the program’s 23 years, 90 per cent were First Nation adults who would never have pursued a university education had it not been for the program. SFU Kamloops eventually evolved into the SFU First Nations Languages Program which provides off-campus learning in 18 Indigenous languages in First Nations communities around B.C. The annual enrollment has leapt from 109 students in 2015 to 570 today.

In 1988, Marianne Ignace and a few like-minded Indigenous people created what became SFU Kamloops in the old Kamloops Indian Residential School at a time when very few institutions were bringing education to Indigenous communities. This photo of the school was taken in 1934 during an era when hundreds of Secwepemc children attended the school, often forcibly removed from their homes. Photo: Archives Deschâtelets-NDC

Ignace likens that early program in Kamloops to a strawberry plant whose runners spread out and create more plants. By the mid-1990s other First Nations communities in B.C. asked the FNLP to help them run courses in their languages. Ignace has since worked with First Nations communities and elders on various language revitalization projects, including Secwepemctsin, St’at’imcets, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Haida and Sm’algyax.

Today, Indigenous people of all ages are learning or relearning their languages. Those who seek to relearn their first language are called “silent speakers.” They understand the language but cannot speak it. Often, they are survivors of residential schools whose ability to speak their first language was beaten out of them. Others lost their language when they were raised in non-native foster families.

When a language is lost so are the stories that pass on a people’s lessons about their land and how they live on it. That’s why, in the 1980s, Ignace began audio-recording the last generation of storytellers. Those recordings, combined with the work of early 20th century ethnographers who chronicled the wealth of Indigenous oral literature, are helping Ignace bring those stories back to life. But she is racing against time as the elders in participating communities pass away. Still, she remains optimistic.

“The thing that thrills me is that while we’re losing the last first-language speakers, there’s been an enormous amount of work done by hard-working young people who have become very good at learning the language.”