My main area of research as a linguistic anthropologist is how to support the continued growth and strength of minority languages, and to try to understand how social, political, and ideological structures create challenges we need to address in this work. There is an increased awareness, in Canada at least, of how the eradication of Indigenous languages in particular has been a part of ongoing colonial violence, efforts to assimilate Indigenous people, and to eradicate cultural difference. Within the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the impact of Canada’s Residential School system, language appears as a central theme in statements about both the damage done within these institutions and the possibility of a new path in the future.
The reality is, though, that getting language programs to work is hard. Learning languages takes a lot of energy and time even when there are tons of available resources (like classes, online learning resources, dictionaries, pedagogical textbooks, immersion programs, conversation circles, exchanges to areas where the language is spoken, etc.), opportunities to use the language, and motivation (such as improved employment possibilities). For languages with small numbers of speakers, limited opportunities for use, and marginalized political status, it takes even more.
Which is not to say it can’t be done. The central theme of the best language revitalization stories is an unwavering focus and persistence of even a small number of people who commit to making the language an active part of their every day lives. This CBC story about a Vancouver-based Skwomesh language “Immersion House” is an example of exactly that. As the story illustrates, a group of young people felt frustrated by the classroom-based learning environment that had been their only opportunity to learn the language, and created a “DIY” solution. They set up house together and established specific times and ways of using and learning the language. For busy young people, time is often a factor, and bringing it into the home, setting language-learning around mealtime, is a way of combating the constant threat of other priorities. It also, as the house’s language teacher Khelisem notes in the article, keeps them insulated from the swinging winds of funding patterns that plague a lot of these programs – periodically supportive governments at the local, provincial, or federal level will offer one-time funding, or even commit to language programs for a few years at a time, but rarely are language advocates able to count on having truly sustainable funding sources. As one might imagine, starting an immersion school or even language classes, getting kids enrolled and participating, then forcing them to drop the classes when they reach grade 4 or 5…it’s not going to provide the kind of sustained commitment that language learning requires. All that the roommates in the immersion house need is their rent – which, given that it’s Vancouver, is not small change, but it’s split amongst them and, just as with the time taken for meals, it’s an expense category they were all going to have to meet anyway.
The article doesn’t say so, but this “Language House” initiative has some particular features that are somewhat rare in the revitalization world. First, it is in a major Canadian city. Often, revitalization initiatives remain focused on places where the majority of the population belongs to the speaker group – in Canada, this usually means reserves or the Northern territories. Cities, despite obviously being part the lands taken from Indigenous people, are not usually recognized as Indigenous spaces, either in formal initiatives or ideological frames. Settler Canada continues to construct a dichotomy that says that “Indigenous” is incompatible with “modern” and urban, and this has an impact on how programs are funded and planned. Second, it’s focused on young adults, and taught by a young, semi-fluent adult. The former part of that is not exactly unheard of – there are several revitalization strategies that target adult learners – but it isn’t all that common either. Schools, and a focus on children, remain central in most contexts. The latter part is something that needs to be encouraged a lot more. There is sometimes a tendency to over-emphasize the need for teachers to themselves be fluent, first language speakers. I think, to a degree, this is something that linguists involved in documentation and revitalization initiatives need to be conscious of – since we are most interested in how the language is spoken by these folks, we might be guilty of perpetuating this idea of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real speaker’. The tendency in articles like this to enumerate the number of “fluent speakers” (often, as in this case, very low), and I rarely see counts of strong learners emerging, or even fluent second language speakers coming to be added to those counts.
This connects to a theme that Khelisem himself raised about the article, and about the way these language initiatives are talked about in general – by highlighting those involved as “saviours” of the languages.
As Khelisem further noted on Twitter, the framing of stories about Indigenous languages is always about their decline, rather than their strength. The number of people who speak Skwomesh has been on the rise for some time, but as with any minority language situation, this is never the story that gets told. On the one hand, I think this is embedded in colonialism – Indigenous ways of life are never seen as thriving, vibrant, and changing, they are always relics of the past, dying, and incompatible with the contemporary world. On the other, I think it also connects to the privileged status that first-language speakers have in these discussions. Since this group, still, is almost always elders, who are never getting any younger, the numbers only ever seem to go down. And then at the same time, the people learning or supporting the language don’t necessarily want to be seen as “missionaries”, as Khelisem puts it (as a non-Indigenous person involved in these initiatives, I am especially reluctant about this, but media outlets, quite frankly, love it). Learning the language is a highly political act that connects in vital ways to Indigenous rights and decolonization; it’s not necessarily about saving it.
The happy ending to that tweet is that in response to Khelisem’s emailed complaint about the framing, the article was revised to remove that “saviour” dynamic. I didn’t see the previous version, but I’m certainly heartened to see that this type of feedback was taken seriously by the CBC journalists.
Anyway, I could, and probably will, write for ages about this topic, but the short version is – yay Language House! I’m going to be making a donation to their campaign at their website, and certainly encourage anyone able to do the same.