Comment: Language a strong symbol of cultural identity

Does language really matter? It is one of the most tangible symbols of cultural and group identity. It is the living expression of intellect, of specific cultural understanding, a link to the past and to the future, a tool for naming and knowing the land and all the history and companionship it holds, and a key to future survival.

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council recently released its 2014 report on the status of B.C. First Nations languages. The report shows that the number of fluent speakers of B.C. First Nations languages has declined since the council published its first status report four years ago; but the number of language learners and semi-fluent speakers has increased.

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In B.C., as in all parts of the world, language is far more important than many realize.

Because of its inextricable connection with cultural identity, language and its renewal play a vital role in the healing of communities and individuals. Physical and economic health depend on emotional, spiritual and mental health. Communities and their members are strengthened in their identities and enjoy greater well-being when they regain control over their languages.

This is not surprising: Losing a connection to the language of one’s ancestors is like losing a part of one’s being. As Anishnaabe elder Mary Lou Fox says, as quoted in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”

Claiming and strengthening languages reminds individuals of their value as human beings, helps to bring people together and encourages the building of educational capacity in communities, allowing communities to move toward health and economic sustainability.

There is an ever-more active movement in B.C. First Nations communities to make their languages thrive again. An exciting aspect of this movement is that it draws in countless supporters from all walks of life.

At the community level, elders and language champions are volunteering their time and inspiration to recover what was taken from them, people such as John Elliott and UVic professor emerita Lorna Williams, both mentioned in the Times Colonist article “First Nations language learners on the rise in B.C.” of Nov. 21.

Their work is supported through partnerships with other communities, organizations like FPCC and the First Nations Education Steering Committee, and educational institutions at all levels, such as the University of Victoria.

At UVic, we have had the privilege to partner with five different B.C. language communities and have several programs in language revitalization, including UVic’s Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization, and a bachelor of education and master’s program in indigenous language revitalization. UVic is one of many B.C. post-secondary institutions where language revitalization is being taken seriously.

Through partnerships and programs like those at UVic, indigenous communities and individuals are making a mark in and staking a claim to academic space; and students and educators in schools and in post-secondary institutions are learning from each other about how to work in partnership, and how to respect and work within diverse ways of knowing and being.

These partnerships and programs have served as a model for similar ones within Canada and abroad. For example, the certificate program — developed and tested in B.C. communities — has proved to be of huge value in Ontario and northern Canada, and has attracted interest and respect from Australia, New Zealand and Tibet.

The language-revitalization movement in B.C. benefits the entire province. As the recent FPCC report reminds us, the indigenous languages of B.C. are “part of our shared heritage as Canadians.” Their revitalization will have important implications for global efforts to address biodiversity loss, climate change and environmental challenges.

Supporting the health of these languages is one way of ensuring that valuable knowledge about the plants, animals, history and geography of our province is kept alive. It is also one way to support and strengthen the well-being of individuals and communities, and to support education and economies.

Language really can make a difference.

Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins is a linguistics professor at the University of Victoria. She wrote this in collaboration with fellow UVic researchers Sonya Bird, Bobbilee Copeland, Peter Jacobs, Onowa McIvor, Tania Muir, Hossein Nassaji, Trish Rosborough, Leslie Saxon and Suzanne Urbanczyk.

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