Peter Jacobs


New diploma program fuels First Nations language proficiency

May 13, 2019

By Diane Luckow

Every Friday at the Squamish Nation reserve in North Vancouver, 22 adult learners attend an all-day class to further their ability to speak Skwxwu7meshsnichim, the Squamish language. They’re enrolled in SFU’s inaugural Diploma in First Nations Language Proficiency program, which follows completion of a one-year Certificate in First Nations Language Proficiency in the language.

“It takes a few thousand hours of language exposure to become an intermediate second-language speaker,” says Peter Jacobs, an SFU professor of linguistics and the program’s instructor. “This diploma program, which is staggered over two years, along with the certificate program, approximates that. The students continue to learn more grammar, and more communication contexts.”

Jacobs, who is from the Squamish Nation himself, joined SFU’s faculty in 2017 from the University of Victoria in part because of the new diploma program. He is passionate about promoting First Nations language programs that emphasize learning to speak the language.

“We only have a handful of first-language speakers of Skwxwu7meshsnichim left,” he says. “The majority of our new adult speakers will come out of this program.”

Skwxwu7meshsnichim is one of several SFU First Nations language programs to offer the new second-year diploma program to students who have completed the first-year language immersion certificate. Other B.C. First Nations language diploma programs include the Shuswap Nation’s Secwepemcts language, and the Coast Salish people’s Hulq’umi’num language, in Duncan.

Jacobs is also the co-investigator on a six-year, $2.4-million Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study adult learners of Indigenous languages, in collaboration with nine First Nations communities and partners across Canada.

“We’re examining the types of programs and their effectiveness, and also ways of measuring language proficiency for Indigenous languages because it has not been done before, or has been done piecemeal.”

He’s also studying the effects and outcomes of learning these languages. For example, how many participants go on to become second-language teachers?

“We want to understand how they integrate their First Nation language competency afterwards,” says Jacobs. “The overarching goal is to better share the types of programs and initiatives that work best for adult learners.”