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Squamish Nation struggles to preserve a threatened language

Squamish Stories, Part 3

Ask Peter Jacobs how many fluent speakers of the Squamish language there are and he pauses for a second.

"Two or three years ago, we were saying less than 15," says Jacobs, who works in the band's language program. "I would have to say less than 10 now."

Overwhelmingly, those 10 or so fluent speakers are elders of the community, a vital resource of traditional knowledge, but also a resource that may not be around much longer.

The decline of Squamish began with the introduction of residential schools and an official federal government policy of assimilating First Nations into Canadian culture in the early 20th century. Punished for speaking the language, children forgot the words of their parents and English took over.

It wasn't until the 1970s, when the Trudeau Liberals instituted official bilingualism and required schools to teach French, that the Squamish Nation began their own language program in schools --first at St. Thomas Aquinas, soon followed by the North Vancouver school district.

Still, the number of speakers continued to drop.

Today, those working to revitalize the language believe their efforts could be reaching a turning point, thanks in part to the work of a new generation of Squamish youth who are actively reclaiming their identity in their own way, building on the basics of the language taught in schools.

Dustin Rivers is just 22 years old, but for two years now he's been facilitating and teaching a Squamish language class and running an online language resource.

Before beginning the classes, Rivers says he spoke "Tarzan language" -- a mishmash of basic phrases, nouns and verbs that he didn't quite know how to put together properly, combining what he learned from his grandmother as a child with pieces from school.

Two years ago, he started seeking out meetings with a local elder at the language program, asking her questions and pulling phrases from her. He was using a set of tools developed in Oregon by linguist Evan Gardener called "Where Are Your Keys" that turns language instruction on its head and puts the onus on the student, not the teacher.

Today, he can hold a conversation, ask questions, talk about his day, ceremonies and a whole host of topics. While he was not exactly fluent, Rivers knew how dire the language situation was and didn't wait to start sharing his new knowledge, starting the classes immediately.

"I grew up with my grandmother who wasn't fluent because she went to residential school for 10 years," he says. "She was very harshly punished.

"Raising me really enforced her own belief that the language was important to learn."

For the first workshop two years ago, Gardener visited North Vancouver from Oregon to teach Where Are Your Keys. The program is basically a series of games, techniques and questions designed to pull language out of speakers through normal conversations rather than teach it with a school curriculum. Most of all, it's designed to be fun and easy, he says, and should not feel like high school French class.

Gardner compares it to playing cards -- lessons can be easy, like Go Fish, or complex, like Texas Hold 'em. "They don't have to have any fluency in the language. They can sit with grandma for about five minutes and get enough information that they can start teaching a language," he says.

The technique was born after Gardener attended a language conference and heard the same thing over and over again: the last speakers of native languages dying without leaving a curriculum to carry the languages on.

Gardner pulled together techniques he knew were successful from working as a teacher himself and has, over the last 10 years, created an open-source curriculum, allowing groups to add to or take from the work as they please.

One of the most obvious differences is that his students use hand signals associated with each word, a sort of memory aid that helps recall information. Many of the techniques are designed to mimic how a baby picks up language from his or her parents, often by asking lots of questions.

"Hopefully it doesn't feel like you're just pumping them for information, but that's exactly what it is," he says, laughing sheepishly. "Hopefully grandma suddenly realizes, 'Oh, my god, my kid is learning how to speak my language.'"

River's classes have proved popular. When they held their first workshop two years ago, just five people showed up to take part, but last spring about three dozen people took part each week, and this fall the classes are starting again twice a week.

Older students return, says Rivers, to help with teaching, and through teaching they also improve their skills.

Their skill levels range from intermediate to extreme beginner. Amanda Nahanee had never taken a Squamish class before but jumped at the chance, encouraged by the words her boyfriend's four-year-old niece learned in daycare and shared with her at home.

"She's four and she knows more about this language than I do," says Nahanee, describing the class as fun and a little unusual. Still, work and responsibilities have often stepped in the way of attending class, and she found it hard to commit to every week with her schedule. It's one of the obstacles people face, she says, but one that she feels is worth overcoming.

"There's work and if you have kids you have to take care of them, but it's so worth it to go," she says.

Where Are Your Keys is being used across the Pacific Northwest, including by the Sechelt band on the Sunshine Coast, and to teach languages as different as Latin, but Gardener says the Squamish program is far more developed than most.

British Columbia has some of the highest language diversity in the world with 32 unique languages. That's 60 per cent of the First Nations languages spoken across Canada. If speakers of Squamish were to visit First Nations on Vancouver Island, they might understand a few words but have trouble grasping the full meaning, says Jacobs -- similar to if a Spanish speaker were to listen to Portuguese.

Squamish is not the only language to be teetering on the edge of extinction. The 2010 Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages found that eight of the province's languages are severely endangered while another 22, including Squamish, are "nearly extinct."

Only two living languages have fewer fluent speakers than Squamish, including the Sechelt with just eight. Three languages are classified as "sleeping," meaning there are no fluent speakers left at all.

The extreme language diversity presents a unique challenge to revitalizing languages in B.C., partly because each language serves a much smaller community with far fewer speakers. Whereas the latest census recorded 100,000 speakers of the various dialects of Cree spread from Alberta to Labrador and north to Northwest Territories, all of B.C.'s First Nations languages combined have a mere 5,600fluent speakers and 8,900 partial speakers, many of whom are elders. What's more, many of those languages were traditionally spoken in a single valley.

But that uniqueness of Squamish is also cherished by those who speak and are learning the language.

The phrase "my language" comes up repeatedly in talking to people about why they want to learn Squamish, even from people such as Nahanee who are just beginning to learn. The language, the vocabulary itself, expresses a unique way of seeing the world and the community's history going back centuries, says Rivers.

"There's a dynamic, a thing called a Squamish dynamic, that makes you who you are and that separates us from everybody else in the world and makes us unique about who we are, just as everybody else has their own dynamic," he says. "And the language is part of that, it's an aspect of that."

In particular, Rivers lists off words that don't appear in English, that he has difficulty explaining even after several sentences of trying. Fellow teacher Jacobs can list just as many. It's that unique perspective that will be lost if the language isn't revived, they say.

But both also say more is needed to succeed at bringing Squamish back from the brink.

While teachers currently stitch a lot of Squamish instruction into the Capilano Little Ones school on the reserve, which teaches children kindergarten to Grade 2, Jacobs says they're working towards a full immersion program. The problem right now is a lack of certified teachers, but the first graduates of a new Capilano University program just finished with a one-year certificate program, similar to a minor in Squamish language. That program will be expanded in the future, he says, though he can't be sure when the immersion will be set up.

The nation is also celebrating the recent launch of the first official Squamish language dictionary, comprised of words recorded from elders over the last 15 years, and a second, more complete version is anticipated in the future.

"We're shooting for people using the language in daily life," he says. Already at his office, the chatter between him and his coworkers slips in and out of Squamish. Ceremonies and special events also feature the language prominently.

"When I was growing up there was a lot less Squamish that I heard than I heard today."

Rivers, meanwhile, would like to see a language house established, somewhere where people could immerse themselves in Squamish on a daily basis and where the language would have protected status above English. He's also a student in the nation's teacher training program himself, though he says he'd rather not be organizing these classes forever. "If I'm doing it forever I'm not succeeding," he says.

"This is the one thing future generations will remember us for, whichever way it goes. Either we revitalize the language or we don't. If we don't, people will remember this is when it died, or people will remember this is when it came back.

"It could go either way, and it's up for us to decide which one it's going to be."