April 24, 2017

Preserving Indigenous languages works from the ground up

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Trying to preserve Indigenous languages by starting at the university level is jumping several steps ahead of the starting line.

Highlighted in a recent CBC News article, professors in the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies are aiming to preserve languages like Mohawk, which have been threatened and depleted by Canada’s history of residential schools and oppression against Indigenous populations. The faculty includes a Ciimaa/Kahuwe'ya/Qajaq language program, which teaches the Mohawk, Anishinaabemowin, Oneida and Inuktitut languages.

But with only 12 people in one of U of T’s Mohawk languages classes, dedicating an entire class to the language doesn’t seem like an effective way to garner interest about these languages and their preservation.

Queen’s has many courses focusing on Indigenous cultures and issues in various departments such as Global Development, Art History and English. Conceivably, these courses could offer education of Indigenous languages as well, in addition to language-focused courses.

However, while emphasizing the teaching of these languages within classes that already exist allows students to build an interest in them, preserving and expanding the use of a language requires a more sustainable and thriving model than sparsely-attended university classes can offer.

Canadian universities still have strides to make when it comes to making their campuses accessible to Indigenous students, let alone able to teach the languages. To focus on preserving Indigenous languages in a space that has historically been and may still be inaccessible to Indigenous populations is counterintuitive, especially when there are other spaces for more accessible and open dialogue.

Public libraries and recreation centres, integration into elementary schools and Indigenous language immersion programs are all ways to help preserve endangered Indigenous languages accessibly and early in life.

For example, starting in fall of 2015, all schools in Prince Rupert, BC implemented an Indigenous languages course requirement — all students in kindergarten through grade four are taught Sm'algyax, the language of the Tsimshian First Nation. The implementation of programs like this start at the root of the problem — they spread awareness about the cultural significance of these languages at an age where it’s easier to learn them.

There’s a double standard at play in Canada when French immersion programs are readily available across the country and students are taught from a young age that learning French has many long-term benefits.

However the same can’t be said for Indigenous languages — if these are the languages of the populations that were here first, it’s strange that kids in schools aren’t learning them until an upper-year university course.

Universities should be spaces of inclusive, global and historically accurate learning. But when it comes to preserving a language at risk of dying, the university model is only one small part of a much bigger and better solution.

Journal Editorial Board

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