First Nations Languages of BC

One of the reasons why I came from Germany to UBC for doing my Ph.D. in Linguistics is the departments work on the documentation and revitalization of First Nations Languages. British Columbia has a very rich and diverse linguistic heritage. In the territory of BC, we can find 32 different First Nations Languages belonging to 7 genetically distinct language families. However, all of these First Nations Languages of BC are critically endangered. This means that they have only very few fluent native speakers which are often very old, and the languages have not been learnt by the younger generations. When the last fluent speakers die, the languages will be extinct, as it already has happened to many other First Nations Languages of the Americas. When languages die, it’s not only sounds and grammatical structures that will be forgotten but often also the culture and traditions of the language communities. What gets lost are unique ways of expression, unique and diverse concepts of the world we live in. This situation makes working on the documentation and revitalization of these languages not only very interesting but also a very important job!

Through its research, the UBC Department of Linguistics attempts to prevent the surviving First Nations Languages of BC from the danger of being forgotten. The First Nations Languages had no written but only oral tradition. With the death of the last native speaker, the knowledge of the language is lost. Therefore, the department has a strong commitment to the documentation of the languages as well as their revitalization. Several research projects are going on, covering amongst others the following languages and language families: Algonquian (Cree), Athapaskan (Tlingit), Salish, Tsimshianic (Gitxsan), Wakashan (Kwakw’ala) and Ktunaxa. Investigating and documenting these languages involves active engagement in field work. This means we are working closely together with members of the First Nations communities. In Germany, I also have been taking field methods classes. But that were rather theoretical introductions on ‘how to do field studies’. This was not comparable to the work we are doing here at UBC, where we have the great opportunity to work in one-to-one-interaction with the presumably last native speakers of the languages we are investigating. Also from a linguistic point of view it was a totally new experience for me: the first time I heard our language consultant for Ktunaxa speaking her native language, I heard sounds that I have never heard before and I was wondering how I should write down what I was hearing! The same is true for the grammatical structures I was suddenly confronted with. My five years of intensive studies of the whole range of Indo-European languages in Germany didn’t prepare me for that!

In the course of the documentation of the languages we gather information about their sound inventories and grammatical systems. Often also the orthography has to be developed. The aim is to prepare grammars, complete language descriptions, so that they can be used to create teaching and learning material for the younger generations. The UBC First Nations Languages Program (FNLG) offers courses in several First Nations Languages and now they are also offered at schools. Teaching and learning tools are even available online, for instance at the website of First Voices. The curriculum development, language teaching and teacher training often happens in collaboration with universities.

In one of my next blogs, I will be telling more about my work on one of the First Nations Languages: Ktunaxa. I will also be interviewing a native speaker of Ktunaxa. She will tell us more about the situation of her language and about her own work.

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