B.C.’s native languages rapidly dying: linguists

B.C.’s native languages rapidly dying: linguists
Province one of world’s five worst spots for language extinction

Jonathan Woodward, Vancouver Sun; With files from Reuters
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate in British Columbia, prompting linguists to include the province on a list of the five worst global “hot spots” for language extinction.

Most fluent aboriginal speakers are aged 60 or older, and their languages will be lost forever when the last speaker dies, said David Harrison, co-director of the Enduring Voices project, which seeks to document and revitalize languages slipping towards oblivion.

“We’re going to lose an immense storehouse of knowledge,” Harrison said.

There are 6,992 recognized distinct languages worldwide.

On average, one language vanishes every two weeks, taking millennia of human knowledge and history with it, says Harrison, who works out of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

The Enduring Voices project, which is sponsored by National Geographic magazine, includes B.C. as part of the Northwest Pacific Plateau, along with parts of Oregon and Washington state.

The only hot spots where risk of language loss is more severe are northern Australia — where 153 languages face extinction — and a region of South America, where Spanish and Portuguese are smothering local tongues.

The study cited other examples as well, including Siberia, where government policies are forcing speakers of 23 languages to abandon their native tongues.

Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, meanwhile, are seeing the legacy of children being punished for speaking their native tongues at government boarding schools.

In B.C., three languages have already become extinct because of colonization and pressures from widespread use of English, said Bill Poser, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the Carrier language in Prince George.

Of the 36 remaining languages, 13 are spoken by fewer than 50 people each, Poser said.

One language, South Tsimshian, is spoken by only one person.

“Virtually none of these languages have speakers under the age of 15,” he said. “Once a language ceases to be learned by children, that’s it. When all of the speakers are over 60, you’re in big trouble.”

Only 15 of an estimated 3,600 Squamish people are fluent in their own language, and all of them are elderly, said Deborah Jacobs, an educator with the band.

“Our language embraces and wraps our identity, our future and our survival as a people,” she said. “It certainly is quite critical that it survive.”

Jacobs’s grandmother, at 97, is a fluent speaker, but Jacobs’s first language is English. Her father went to a residential school, and afterwards did not teach his children their native language, she said.

“I speak the language very much as a child would speak the language,” she said.

Jacobs is working to train teachers in the language, so a school can be set up to teach it to future generations. The process, she said, is a slow one, essentially a race against time to record the language of the elders before they die.

Much of the blame for language loss can be tied to residential schools, UBC linguistics Prof. Suzanne Gessner said. For decades, children were taken away from their families during the school year and educated in English. A compensation package designed to address the wrongs of residential schools did nothing to revitalize languages, she said — and last November, the federal government cut $160 million in funding for aboriginal languages.

“You need money, you need time, you need people trained,” Gessner said. “Efforts are being made, but we’re losing our languages.”

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