Recently, however, a movement to preserve these languages has been gaining significant momentum, inspiring the B.C. government to commit $50 million towards that effort over the next three years.
Although this has been recognized by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council as a step in the right direction, the council is quick to remind British Columbians that the fight for preserving these languages is nowhere near over. Many Indigenous activists and allies are currently fighting to make these languages official in Canada.
Dr. Heather Bliss, a linguistics lecturer at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says that Canada should commit to making more Indigenous languages official despite concerns about the complexity of doing so.
“We can just declare these languages as official languages for recognitional purposes, but that’s not necessarily going to do anything towards revitalizing the languages and creating new generations of young speakers,” she says. “There might not be any impact of the act if it is simply recognitional.”
Bliss says that, in order to preserve endangered languages, they will need to be taught and spoken more commonly in modern Canadian society.
“There are a lot of systemic barriers still to this day. There’s this lack of recognition for these languages, for instance. There’s no official status for these languages and there’s a lack of education, so it’s hard for people to understand the importance of them,” she says. “It’s not just about one’s ability speak the language but one’s ability to use the language.”
Six Nations Polytechnic, an advocacy group that focuses on Indigenous knowledge and learning, is offering the first Indigenous-run degree for Indigenous languages in Canada. The First Peoples’ Cultural Council is actively working with communities and developing strategies for getting more Canadians to speak endangered languages as well.
Bliss says that creating “language nests,” or culturally immersive environments for children becoming fluent in their First Nations languages, is one revitalization method that is often effective.
“We know kids are super learners of languages. They learn this without any effort,” she says. “So, if you can develop programs like language nests … then the idea is that they are going to pick it up really quickly.”
In order for these programs to be successful, they must be taught by people already fluent in the languages. The same applies to the Mentorship-Apprentice Program by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.
“The goal of the Mentor-Apprentice Program is to facilitate the development of fluent speakers of B.C. First Nations languages, where fluent speakers are partnered with committed learners in an immersion environment in the home and on the land,” reads the FPCC’s official website.
For this program, a mentor and apprentice spend a total of 300 hours per year together. In the immersion process, the two of them go about regular day-to-day activities in an unstructured environment, speaking only in the language they are learning.
Another revitalization effort is found through media and music. For instance, Bliss points out that the Maori language in New Zealand is making a comeback through exposure in pop culture, which influences youth to consider using it again.
“Language is connected to everything,” she says. “Once we take care of the language problem, then it can solve a lot of other problems as well.”