Language revitalization in the Pacific Northwest

Linguists estimate that a language goes extinct every 14 days. Of the 7,106 living languages that have been identified, from 50% to 95% are predicted to disappear before the end of this century. National Geographic has designated the Canadian province of British Columbia as one of the most endangered “hotspots” on the planet because of the high concentration and diversity of its aboriginal languages, all of which are facing the threat of imminent extinction. In Vancouver, where the sea meets the mountains, Becky Campbell of the Squamish nation is fighting to save her language. The survival of her people may depend on it.

Campbell is an unlikely warrior. One of the first things you notice about her is that her cheeks dimple when she smiles — and she smiles a lot. With hair the color of a raven’s feathers, the 44-year-old bubbles over with enthusiasm when she talks about her language.

You would never guess that she is engaged in a fight that some say she will never win, a fight to snatch the Squamish language from the brink of extinction. On this day, Campbell is wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt imprinted with eagle wings of gold and silver. Her hoop earrings glint as she moves in a rare shaft of north shore sunlight.

“Tkaya,” she calls out to the students in the Squamish language class at a North Vancouver secondary school, teenagers of both native and nonnative heritage. “Wolf.” In one hand she holds a ceremonial drum made of a stretched animal skin, in the other, a crooked drumming stick. “Yewyews,” she says, striking the drum as she waits for the students to repeat the word after her. “Yewyews. Killer whale.” 

She puts down the drum to write “Sxwi7shn” on the chalkboard. “Deer,” she translates, and then explains that the number 7 is a placeholder for the glottal stop because there is no Roman letter for that sound in their language.

Campbell is on a mission. She is a language teacher and translation specialist for the Squamish Band Council, housed at the foot of the Second Narrows Bridge, on the rainy north shore of Vancouver, British Columbia. Besides teaching elementary and high school students, she translates children’s books, songs, games, classroom resources and archival footage of the last speakers. Her work is a last-ditch attempt to save her language.

“I can’t imagine our language dying. It’s heartbreaking to even think that,” says Campbell. “My language is who I am.” Through the window behind her, wisps of clouds drape the mountains like hoary beards. “My language is my identity — it’s being Squamish. It means I’m from this land.”


First Nations, first languages

Before the arrival of the European settlers, North America was home to hundreds of indigenous tongues such as Squamish, a Coast Salish language. Even though many have now died, surprisingly enough there are still more living languages in Canada and the United States than in all the countries of Europe combined.

Most of Canada’s existing languages are found in the westernmost province of British Columbia. Its raincoasts and valleys have been home, over the millennia, to two-thirds of Canada’s native tongues. However, virtually all First Nations languages are in danger, including languages with rich histories such as Dene (threatened), Beaver (moribund), Bella Coola, Nuu-chah-nulth and Chinook (all nearly extinct).

National Geographic has joined with Living Tongues Institute in designating British Columbia as one of the most severely endangered language “hotspots” on earth. The hotspot designation refers not only to the high concentration of endangered languages — which in itself makes British Columbia a linguistic rarity — but also to the unusual diversity of the aboriginal languages in the province.

There are seven distinct language families in British Columbia, along with two isolates (languages which, like Basque and Korean, have no known relatives). When you consider that English, Russian and Hindi belong to the same language family, you get an idea of the unparalleled diversity of languages in this one corner of Canada.

According to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, as recently as 50 years ago, northern California and southern Oregon were just as rich in languages as the Pacific Northwest coastal regions. However, in California and Oregon, most of those languages have already passed out of existence. Only “a handful of speakers of a small number of languages” remain.

To prevent this from happening north of the border, First Nations aboriginal people like Campbell are racing against the clock before the last few remaining speakers die. Time is already running out for the Squamish language: there are just eight native speakers left alive, and all of them are elders.

Killing the language to kill the culture

First Nations communities lost everyday use of their languages over the course of a century, when generations of children as young as five were taken from their families and confined in residential schools whose main purpose was to suppress their culture and their languages. South of the border, the US “industrial schools” followed the same pattern.

Conceived in the late 1880s and continuing for a century, the goal of the mostly church-run residential schools was to force the assimilation of native children. This would be accomplished by “killing the Indian in the child.” Punishments for children who were caught speaking their own language, even if they knew no other, ranged from beatings to needles shoved in their tongues.

In Stolen from our Embrace, former Musqueum Chief George Guerin writes, “Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands.”

Campbell learned Squamish (or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, in the vernacular), from her grandfather, Chief Lawrence Baker, also called Sekyu Siyam, who was a hereditary chief of the Squamish nation. Having gone through a residential school, Campbell’s grandfather “knew the impact of the loss of our language and our culture.” But by the time Campbell was born, the Squamish language was nearly dead and buried. “He was all for bringing it back and keeping it alive,” says Campbell.

Born in 1928, her grandfather stepped in to raise her when her own parents failed, one of the tragic after-effects of forced residential schooling: parents who never learned how to parent.

“He used to take my brother and me to the Squamish Valley, and as we went through our traditional territory, he’d tell us the mountain names in our languages and all the villages that used to be here. He would tell us there used to be a longhouse here or this was a great spot for salmon or here was a spot for berries. That is how we would explore our language. He wanted us to know how big our land was and how beautiful.”

When her grandfather died in 2003, Campbell says that it was “alarming” all the language that went with him. “Our language is everything we stand for. We get so many challenges where people chip away at us and try to knock us down. Our language is our foundation. If it’s taken away, then we have no foundation, no base.”


Why saving languages matters

Why does it matter if a language spoken by only eight people dies out?

This is a question I often hear as I talk to groups on behalf of Translators without Borders. I might even have once asked that question myself. I have discovered, however, that a language is not just words. Noam Chomsky, quoted in Found in Translation on the revitalization of Wampanoag, says that language is “a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is.”

Language loss can lead to the cultural collapse of indigenous communities. In its September 1990 “Principles for Revitalization of First Nations Languages,” the Assembly of First Nations concludes, “Without our languages our cultures cannot survive.”

Languages are not only important for community identity: they also reflect the unique connection between people and their environment. There may not be 21 words for snow in Inuit, as the apocryphal story goes, but there are certainly 11 words for rain (slhemxw) in Squamish, including raining continuously (lhelhmxw), raining hard (timitsut), be pouring rain (yixwementsut) and not be raining so hard (chay).

This is just one way languages carry in them knowledge of the natural environment. Species’ names may also hold a clue as to their specific properties, just as poison ivy in English conveys important information about that plant. But when languages go extinct, the knowledge they contain disappears as well, knowledge that could help us protect biodiversity, maybe even find a life-saving new drug.

With language inextricably connected to the land, and to cultural identity, what happens when a community loses its language? In Canada, First Nations communities suffer disproportionately from poverty, marginalization, violence, addiction, malnutrition and suicide. One quarter of children in First Nations communities live in poverty. According to “A Portrait of First Nations and Education,” put out by the Assembly of First Nations, “a First Nation youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.”

Can these signs of community distress be traced back to a breakdown in the transmission of culture and language fostered over a century of forced assimilation through the residential schools? To answer this question, a group of researchers in British Columbia lead by Darcy Hallet started looking into the distressingly high rate of suicide among First Nations youth.

The researchers compared six cultural continuity factors to try to find what might correlate with the high rate of youth suicide in many aboriginal communities. What they found was startling. In communities where fewer than 50% of the elders were connected to their language, young people were six times more likely to take their own lives.


Language revitalization

There is hope. According to Bill Poser, adjunct professor of linguistics from the University of British Columbia, Hebrew is one language that has been brought back from the dead. “Hebrew ceased to be the language of daily communication for the great majority of Jews around 300 BC,” says Poser. “Hebrew survived as a language that people could read, but for the most part it was not a language that people spoke.”

What changed was that in the late nineteenth century, “a few people decided they were going to use Hebrew at home.” Newspapers were published in Hebrew, people started speaking Hebrew with their children, and today Hebrew has come back as the language of daily life in Israel.

As for the Squamish language, according to Poser, there are two choices. “Record the language so that at some future time the language could be resurrected. Or go the full immersion route in schools and make it more likely that when the young people grow up, they will teach the language to their own children.”

A Squamish immersion program is exactly what the Squamish Nation is creating. A talking dictionary is also in the works, with the aim of a launch in 2015. Reaching the adults will be next, because often, children go home and speak English. Campbell herself speaks Squamish to her children (aged 24, 13, 12 and 7) and to her grandchildren.

It took a century to nearly wipe out the Squamish language. No one expects it to bounce back overnight. But language revitalization is a priority not just for the Squamish, but for many of the nations that speak British Columbia’s 32 endangered languages.

“I think we’re on a good path to resurrecting the language,” Campbell says. “In two generations, I think our language will flourish again.”