Transcript for We Teach Languages Episode 71: Indigenous Language Preservation and Revitalization with Aliana Parker
Stacey Margarita Johnson: This is We Teach Languages, a podcast about language teaching from the diverse perspectives of real teachers. I’m Stacey Johnson and today on episode 71 we get to learn from Aliana Parker, the Language Programs Manager at the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia, Canada. She works closely with First Nations community partners to coordinate indigenous language grant programs focusing on the preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages in that area.
Stacey: Can you tell us a little bit more about the work you do.
Aliana Parker: For sure. Thanks for that introduction. I do get to work as the Language Programs Manager for a really unique organization called the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. It’s my great honor to work for an organization like this.
This organization was established in British Columbia, Canada in 1990. We’ve been around for 28 years and our entire mandate is to support the First Nations within this province to revitalize their arts, language and culture.
I’ll just add a note for any listeners unfamiliar with the term First Nations…within Canada that term is used to refer to indigenous groups, excepting any Inuits and Metis people. They’re referred to as Inuits and Metis people and every other indigenous group in Canada is referred to as First Nations.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council is a First Nations led interactive organizations. We have a board of directors that is held by First Nation people from around the province. We also have an advisory committee that represents all of the diversity of languages here in BC.
As I said, our mandate is to support the revitalization of First Nation’s art, languages and culture throughout the province. We do that primarily by providing grants to communities, community-based grants for projects around language or art.
We have an arts program within the organization that supports First Nation’s artists and arts organizations. It has all kinds of neat funding streams like sharing traditional art across generations, supporting aboriginal or indigenous youth to be engaged in the arts and a brand-new music program which is very exciting, supporting indigenous musicians.
I am the Language Programs Manager here, so I manage the language side of the work that we do. We have a number of different funding programs that we provide support to First Nation’s communities to run language projects to document their languages and also teach them and learn them to develop new fluent-speakers of those languages.
Stacey: I am especially thinking about…really, I feel very convicted about how little I know about the indigenous language community here in Tennessee, where I live. Thinking about how I can go find out more information about what indigenous languages are spoken or taught in my community. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about what the indigenous community and contact is like where you are.
Aliana: Definitely, there are about 60 or more First Nations languages across Canada…
Stacey: I’m sorry. Let me ask you a question. Is the word “indigenous” the right word for Canada?
Aliana: Yes. We have recently gone through, there’s been a shift recently. The term “aboriginal” used to be common, but there’s been a shift to use the term “indigenous”. It’s the preferred term because if you think about, for example, a plant that is indigenous to a certain area, it reflects that link to the land. Using the term “indigenous” reflects the fact that the First Nations and indigenous people in Canada have been here since time immemorial. They are connected and rooted to this land here. It’s a respectful term.
As I was mentioning, across Canada, there’s about 60 indigenous languages and we have 34 of those here in BC. We have a really high language diversity in British Columbia — over 60 percent of all of the languages in Canada — which is really exciting and beautiful. Those 34 languages are grouped in about seven language families. A language family are languages that are related to each other. They’re separate languages but they are related. For example, Spanish and Italian and French are all in the same language family but they’re completely distinct languages.
The same with the 34 languages in BC. There are seven distinct language families and within those are 34 distinct languages. They are as different as Spanish and French are, or even as English and Chinese, they’re a separate language family. There’s a lot of diversity here.
Stacey: That’s amazing. We don’t often think about the diversity of languages in our own community. We have seven language families in one province, that’s amazing.
Aliana: It is definitely amazing, yes. A lot of people ask about where did this language diversity come from? There is many different answers to that question. There’s no one straightforward answer. There are regions throughout the world that have high language diversity.
The National Geographic actually identified specific regions with high diversity and names them as “language hotspots,” they called them. There is high indigenous language diversity. The Pacific Northwest, from BC down the coast into California, was identified as a language hotspot.
There are different ideas as I’ve said about how that diversity arises, but there are a couple of key factors. One of them is that language diversity, they have found to be connected to ecological diversity, because indigenous languages come from the land or connected to the land.
When you have regions with really high geographic and ecological diversity, which we do in BC, we have everything from rainforests to desert to mountains to plains. You get greater language diversity in those areas.
Language diversity is also related to time and the amount of time that groups of people have spent in these different areas. We know that language changes naturally over time. Languages get more distinct from each other or some languages blend together more over time. It’s the natural process. The longer time there is, the greater their opportunity for more diversity.
Stacey: I’m interested a little bit in some of the challenges and opportunities that you’re running into with your preservation and revitalization efforts for these indigenous languages.
Aliana: Sure. I guess it bears saying that this organization exists and I have a job because all of these 34 languages in BC are, of course, facing threats to their vitality. There are very, very few speakers left for all of these languages. The speakers that are here, most of them are elderly. They’re aged 65 or older. Our organization actually puts out a report every four years that documents the status of the 34 languages in BC. We will be releasing the 2018 edition of this report. The latest statistics point out that of the entire First Nations population in the province, only just over three percent are actually fluent speakers of their languages.
But what we also have found is that there’s an increasing number of the learners. There’s quite a high percentage of people who are learning their languages. That number is growing since the last time we did the report.
That leads to the question of what happens and why don’t people speak their languages anymore. Certainly, I can speak to the Canadian context that I know that it’s been quite similar in the US. Since the time that settlers came to this land and through colonization and the creation of this arbitrary space called Canada, there’s been a lot of oppression of the indigenous people of this land.
In Canada, we went through a period where the government mandated residential schools. Most First Nations children throughout the country were forcibly removed from their families and taken to live in these residential schools, and attend the schools for their schooling year.
At those schools, the common idea at the time was we need to assimilate all indigenous people into our new Canadian identity. They should learn how to speak English or French. They should learn how to act like us, [laughs] settlers, in European ways. The children were punished for speaking their languages. People were punished for practicing their culture.
There was also, for example, a potlatch ban. A potlatch is a really important ceremony that happens in many First Nations cultures in BC. It’s a way of passing on stories, passing on traditions, and also getting business done, things like marriages and births and deaths, and all of that happens in a potlatch.
Potlatches were actually outlawed for quite a number of years here. Through those government policies and also from the church, the Catholic church had a large role to play in those residential schools, many, many, many people lost their language.
People who had attended residential school and maybe being abused for speaking their language then chose to not speak it to their children, because they wanted to protect their children from having the same thing happen to them.
As a result, that’s why we now see the status of languages as it is now, where most of the speakers are older, they’re the ones who would have learned it as a first language as a child.
There’s this whole gap generation where young children didn’t have the opportunity to learn it, because either they did learn it and then they went to residential school and it was taken away from them, or their parents went to residential school and never passed on to them, as a way of protection.
It is a really challenging scenario in the rate now for these languages. What our work is all about is making sure that we can reverse those wrongs of the past.
That we can ensure that children are getting the opportunity to learn their languages ideally from birth. That the languages are fully documented especially the fluent-speaking elders are still with us here. That we get as much of that rich knowledge of the language documented, so that the new learners of tomorrow have access to that fluent speech.
They have access to all of that language knowledge, can learn it, and restart that cycle of what we call inter-generational language transmission, which is just the natural cycle of passing the language on from one generation to the next.
Stacey: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for the work you, guys, are doing. I really want to point out also that you are talking about your particular context, about the history of forced family separation, residential school, and forced dissimilation. It’s very similar in the US context.
If there are listeners in the US or Canada, really in most places in the world, who want to research their own history of indigenous language, they’ll find some very similar story to the ones you told.
Aliana: Yes. That is the case. We often hear similar stories from people from the US and from other parts of the world. It certainly wasn’t exclusive to Canada.
Stacey: I am interested in knowing a little bit more about some of the programs that you, guys, fund to make sure that these languages, that the speaker’s being documented as you said, that the inter-generational transmission of language is being completed. What kinds of programs do you, guys, have?
Aliana: We actually have six language programs that we offer here from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Some of those are just open-funding streams that First Nations communities can identify what their needs are, what kind of work is going to support them the best, then they can access funding for that.
That supports everything from documenting the language, the recording of those fluent speakers and capturing that in audio or even video, and getting all of that stored in a safe place to things like holding a traditional language and culture immersion camps out on the land, where the whole family stick together, go out to, maybe, a traditional fishing site, or go out berry-picking together.
They’re doing traditional activities on the land in the language. We also have a program that is called FirstVoices. That is very exciting and that supports more of that documentation work. FirstVoices is an online set of tools for creating a language archive, like an online language dictionary.
You can upload words and phrases, songs, and stories. All of that can have sound and video and pictures attached. Communities have the tools there to very quickly and easily create their own dictionary that’s totally accessible to everybody in the community.
Along with that, we’ve developed a bunch of apps. Once you have an online dictionary for your language in FirstVoices, it’s a quick step for us to turn that into an app that you can then have on your cell phone. You have quick access to your language right there.
There’s also games that you can play. If you’re young or just to learn, interested in getting some language practice, you can play some games in your language, and things like that. We do provide funding and support to communities to develop those archives, those online dictionaries through FirstVoices.
Some of the other programs that we have, we have a program called the Mentor-Apprentice Program, which is a really amazing program that supports a fluent language speaker or a mentor to work one-on-one with an adult language learner or an apprentice to do language immersion, one-on-one.
The goal of this program is to support the language learner to become a fluent speaker of the language. It’s a really unique program because it’s designed to address some of the many challenges that people face in learning their languages
Where there’s, maybe, no curriculum, there might not be a comprehensive dictionary or grammar book, there’s no language resources, there’s no opportunity to go to school and learn the language. All there is is maybe somebody who speaks the language.
How do you go to somebody who speaks the language when you’re not a trained teacher and they’re not a trained teacher? How do you go up to somebody like that and learn the language from them and actually be able to speak it? That’s what the Mentor-Apprentice Program is all about. We found it to be very successful.
We also have a program called the Language Nest Program. Language Nests are language immersion environments for young children up to five years old. This model, we have borrowed from…it was popularized by the Maori in New Zealand and was also used extensively by Hawaiians in Hawaii for Hawaiian language revitalization.
This program, the goal of that is to give young children the opportunity to learn their indigenous language as their first language. It provides the Metis space where they can just naturally interact with fluent speakers on a daily basis and acquire the language, like we all acquire our first language naturally.
It’s giving them the opportunity to really be bilingual. In most cases, they’re learning English at home from their parents then they go to the Language Nest. They get to learn their indigenous language from the fluent speakers there as their other first language.
Stacey: All the programs are really amazing, but the thing that really piqued my interest about this one is that I read in the description that there’s staff and volunteers, but there’s also community elders who work with these young children.
Not only are they getting just language but they’re getting that inter-generational cultural knowledge as well about how you interact with people from your community, from that community perspective. It’s amazing.
Aliana: Absolutely, yeah. Most Language Nest programs, given what I was saying earlier about the context for these languages, there are very few younger people who can speak the language fluently enough to create that immersive environment for children.
Most Language Nest programs are relying on the elders to come in and provide the language, which is fantastic, because it’s connecting, it’s building those connections between generations.
Exactly as you say, Stacey, it’s having the children not only learn the language but also learn about their culture from the elders. It’s really a whole family and a whole community initiative for the Language Nest.
Stacey: I have one last question for you. I imagine like me, there are a lot of people listening who are thinking, “I know that there are indigenous people and indigenous languages in my community. I don’t want the language and the culture of these people to be lost. What can I do to help?” Do you have any advice for people who might want to help and are not sure where to start?
Aliana: Yeah, that’s a great question, Stacey. I would recommend the very first things to do would be to just find out who’s territory you live on, what nation was there, originally, in your area, what is their language. See if you can find out what they might be doing for language revitalization. Maybe there’s programs that they’re running within their own community or maybe not much is happening. If you’re able to, perhaps there’s somebody who can teach you how to say a simple greeting or a thank you in that language, so that you can begin to create awareness among your friends, family, and others around you who you interact with that there is another language here that’s spoken here. There is another language and it’s the original language of these lands that we’re on right now. Creating that awareness and respect is hugely helpful. Even though it doesn’t seem to do a whole lot right away, it really creates an environment for that community and that nation to be successful in their efforts.
If you want to go beyond that, you can find out who is supporting that language work and lobby with your regional government, like your municipality, maybe with the local school district, maybe with local businesses to contribute or to support the work in some way.
For example, is the language taught in the school system? Is that something that the community is interested in themselves? I’m speaking of the indigenous community. Could you speak up and push for that? You can also lobby with your local…now, I know that the system in the US is different here in BC.
We have members of parliament, members of the legislative assembly, but whoever your local politicians are, again, find out what are they doing to support language in your area. Just encouraging them that this is an issue that you care about. If you’re in their constituency, obviously, they should be listening to you.
Letting them know that it’s actually on your radar can really make big strides in raising that awareness and creating change.
Stacey: I’m just going to repeat to you what I heard to confirm. First thing, I heard you say several times throughout our talk was find out what the indigenous communities are already doing and see how you can be supportive of that.
The second thing I’ve heard you say is, create awareness within your own network about the indigenous communities that already exist, that the people who’s land we’d live on. The third thing I heard you say was reach out to people who have some political power to make sure they know that this is something that’s on your radar, and that’s important in the community.
Aliana: Yes. That’s a great summary. Thank you, Stacey.
Stacey: [laughs] I always like to repeat the summary just to make sure I’m not wildly misinterpreting according to my own prejudices. Something we all do, I think.
Aliana, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time this morning to speak with me. I have learned a lot. I have a feeling that We Teach Languages listeners are going to just think this is awesome as I am, and look for ways to get involved.
In fact, I’m going to ask anyone who does listen to the episode to use Facebook or Twitter or the comments section for this episode to tell us any action steps they might have taken, whether it’s talking to people in their network, reaching out for local politicians, or finding out what indigenous language communities are right in your own area.
Just any action steps you’ll take as a result of this episode, I would love it if you would post it so that we can share with Aliana the effect that her work is having even outside of British Columbia.
Aliana: Thank you, Stacey. It was my pleasure to speak with you.
Stacey: It’s definitely our pleasure. Thank you so much.
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