When 89-year-old Alban Michael died last month, something else died with him. The Vancouver Island man was believed to be the last fluent speaker of Nuchatlaht, one of the West Coast aboriginal languages.
It’s not certain that Nuchatlaht is unrecoverable. Some documentary records remain, in the form of written material and audio tapes. So the language could be revived, although it would be a major undertaking.
But this is only one part of a much larger, troubling trend. Of B.C.’s 34 surviving First Nations languages, eight have fewer than a dozen fluent speakers, and none has more than 1,000.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council, charged with preserving native heritage, classifies 25 West Coast languages — almost three-quarters of the total — as nearly extinct. All are considered critically endangered.
The reason is clear. In 1900, every First Nations member in B.C. was fluent in at least one aboriginal language.
Today, within a population of 130,000, only 5,300 can speak their native tongue fluently. That is just four per cent of the total, and the downward trend will continue unless there is a sustained effort to reverse it.
Several factors play a role, such as continued urbanization and the growing influence of electronic media. It has been estimated that perhaps 90 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages could be extinct by the end of the century.
But Canada has its own shame to answer for. The disastrous policy of placing aboriginal youngsters in residential schools — begun in the late 1800s and not abandoned until a century later — was a language-killer.
These “schools” have been scarified for heaping abuse on defenceless children. But by demanding the kids speak only English, and banning aboriginal languages, they practised a form of linguistic genocide.
Is it too late to turn back the clock? Certainly not. Hebrew was revived after it had almost ceased to exist as a spoken language. So was native Hawaiian.
But both of these revivals had something in common — strong government support. In B.C., the Ministry of Education plays a part.
School districts are encouraged to include aboriginal languages in their curriculum, and funds are provided to help. More than 50 districts participate, though few offer full-scale immersion courses, which are needed to build fluency.
Yet the challenge goes deeper. Not even the most well-documented First Nations languages have anything close to a full dictionary. Some contain only a few hundred words, and only a third have any dictionary at all.
The solution to this part of the problem lies with aboriginal communities themselves. A concentrated effort is needed to commit the spoken word to paper or tape, and from there, build up an archive.
This is slow, time-consuming work, hindered by conflicting spelling conventions, differing dialects and the reality that most fluent speakers are approaching old age. Shortage of funds is also an ever-present obstacle.
Nevertheless, about 130 aboriginal schools offer instruction in one or more First Nations languages, and that number is growing. Numerous champions of native culture have made it their life’s work to bring dying languages back to life.
Why is this important? It has been said that learning a second language is like gaining a second soul.
The opposite is also true. Losing your language is like losing your soul. Suicide rates are significantly higher in aboriginal communities where the traditional tongues are no longer spoken.
We have a duty of conscience to be part of this struggle, before it’s too late. Readers interested in learning more might enjoy an exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum. Called Our Living Languages, it tells the whole story.