A look at the University of British Columbia’s new Indigenous Language Fluency Program

UBCO will be the first Canadian university to offer a program centred around learning the Nsyilxcen Indigenous language

Rose Caldwell, one of the students in UBCO’s Indigenous language fluency program. (Submitted)

The University of British Columbia Okanagan is planning on offering a four-year bachelor’s program in the Nsyilxcn Indigenous language.

With this program, UBCO will be the first university in Canada to offer education a bachelor’s degree in an “Indigenous language fluency” program.

The program was created in partnership with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the En’owkin Centre. The first two years of the program are to be completed as a diploma and certificate program at the NVIT, and the last two years will be at UBCO.

Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at UBCO, says it’s been a long road to creating this program, with the first discussion of it happening back in 2011.

She was asked to write a “concept paper” when the program was first proposed and made sure to include important learning principles. Some of the main principles were ensuring community involvement for first and second-year students, she says, because she wanted the courses to be taught in the community where the language speakers reside.

“The delivery should be done in the communities where the language speakers are, rather than bring everyone to a centralized location in the university. That was one of the major principles,” says Armstrong.

“Another major principle was that they should partner with the institute of higher learning and  with Indigenous communities to deliver the framework.”

Armstrong also wanted the degree to be a standalone degree focused on “language learning, fluency building and proficiency building in the language,” giving students a chance to learn about their language, history, knowledge and identity.

Rose Caldwell is one of the students in the advanced cohort for the Nsyilxcn language program.

Caldwell comes from a family of eight siblings. She and her two younger siblings were not taught the language because of the residential school system. Her mother went to a residential school where she was maltreated and physically abused for speaking her language.

Before learning about residential schools, she spent a big part of her life wondering why she wasn’t taught her language, she says.

“I went through a really huge part of my life having that as a chip on my shoulder — not understanding why I wasn’t taught because they were, thinking I wasn’t good enough to teach until I understood what residential school was. Because that wasn’t a subject we discussed in our home,” says Caldwell.

“That was a taboo subject. We never talked about it. It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized the horrors that she went through.”

So far, Caldwell says she has learned about why revitalizing the Nsyilxcn language is important, and soon she will be able to listen to fluent speakers and then work on sentence arrangements and translating the language to English.

After that, “We’re going to be in class discussing sentence structure. Why did they say it this way, and why did they say it that way. It’s going to be amazing,” says Caldwell.

Since the first two years studying were at the Nicola Valley Institute, Caldwell will complete her final two years at UBCO.

Caldwell can now speak, write, and understand the language. On top of a bachelor’s degree and a language revitalization degree, she also has a certificate that allows her to teach the language and is now an Okanagan language and culture teacher.

She decided to learn her language on her own and worked hard to teach herself the language.

“I’ve been to every language class that exists in our territory, seeking out to learn it,” Caldwell says. “Because our language is so endangered, we need the powers to be within our communities to take the lead on supporting the language program.”

Caldwell says more financial support for the language program, such as tuition fees and living allowance, is needed.

Since Caldwell already has taken other post-secondary classes, she is not eligible for some funding and says that the rules for funding need to be reworked due to the importance of the degree.

“We need our chiefs and councils to support all of the fees that go with this degree […] we need them to, without question, support it,” she says.