Of all the aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in Canada, only Cree is probably safe from fading into the past.
The rest require conscious efforts to be passed down from generation to generation.
And that’s what a conference gathering at Thompson Rivers University May 17 to 19 is all about, said organizer Jack Miller, who is also an assistant professor in the university’s school of education.
This is the 19th year for the Stabilizing Indigenous Languages conference and the third time it’s been held in Canada.
“Stabilizing is a nice word for revitalizing or to keep the language alive,” Miller said Friday.
Most of the conferences have been held in the U.S., as the focus is largely on First Nations (Native American) languages.
This year’s speakers are from across Canada and the U.S., but there’s also one from Chile.
Those attending are not just aboriginals, but also language teachers and academics who look at language as part of their research, he said.
Miller, who has attended several conferences, said there are indigenous languages in parts of the U.S. that are preserved on tape, but that no one speaks any more.
“The whole focus is what can be done to save indigenous languages. It’s primarily North American in focus.”
You can’t pass on a language if it’s just taught a few hours a week, or if families don’t speak it at home, he said.
“Some of the elders are fluent, but not all,” he said.
But there are First Nations bands with immersion schools, which helps. Even more important is starting young, when children are mere babies.
The Adams Lake band, for instance, has “language nests,” where mothers, babies and elders gather several times a week and speak in their native tongue. Those kids can move on to immersion school when they’re old enough.
“The elders have a sophistication of the language the young people don’t have,” Miller said.
His wife is from a band near Spences Bridge. But because she was taken to a residential school when she was six years old, her native vocabulary is limited to that time. She is relearning it, however.
“There are so many things about indigenous cultures that are so rich, that are so meaningful. The language is an integral part of that. If you just look at all the First Nations kids who go to public school — if they have a sense of pride in their traditions and their language and their culture, they become better students.”
Miller said the drive to save indigenous languages has to come from the community itself.
“You need people with the energy and the passion for the language to be involved.”