Squamish Speakers Keep Language Alive

Phone Peter Jacobs at home and you might hear this recorded greeting: "chexw ma ha7lh?". Caught off guard by Jacobs's friendly salutation in the Squamish aboriginal language, some callers hang up or leave a confused message. However, others attempt to respond with a phrase or two in Squamish, a tongue referred to by its speakers as Swú7mesh Sní­chim.

Jacobs's message is just one small part of an ambitious plan to revitalize the language. The 40-year-old linguist, who works at the Squamish Nation education department, is helping create an immersion program that will rescue Squamish from the brink of extinction and transform it back into a living language. According to Jacobs, it's a real race: the community of 3,300 people has only 15 or so fluent speakers left, many who are in their 60s and 70s.

British Columbia is known for its extraordinary linguistic diversity--it's home to about half of Canada's 50 aboriginal languages. However, in the first 50 or so years of the past century, government and religious officials tried to exterminate Native languages through the residential-school system, separating children from their parents and forbidding students to speak their mother tongues. Surrounded by English, parents often decided it was better not to teach their young children Native languages so they could integrate better into mainstream society. Today, all of B.C.'s aboriginal languages are considered endangered.

In 1988, Peter Jacobs was taking an introductory linguistics course at a Fraser Valley school. One of the assignments was to learn a few phrases in a language he didn't know, so he recorded his grandmother speaking Squamish. Jacobs became aware of how few speakers were left, and he decided to devote his master's thesis to the language. His did his fieldwork by spending days with his relatives. "They got a kick out of my questions," he recalls during an interview at a kindergarten on the Capilano Reserve in North Vancouver. "They hadn't been speaking the language regularly. I was finding words from old linguistics textbooks that they hadn't heard for a while." But Jacobs learned from his elders too, and today he speaks the language "fairly well". He notes that Squamish--which was traditionally spoken from the Lower Mainland up to Howe Sound and the Squamish Valley--is more than just a collection of words: it contains the views and beliefs of his culture. "If you speak English all the time, it starts to change your view of the world," he says. "It influences your way of thinking."

At the Capilano Littlest Ones kindergarten-preschool on the reserve, three-year-olds are learning to communicate in Squamish. "I tell them it's our very own language," says teacher Kathy Joseph, who learned to speak Squamish from her mother as a child. The classroom's walls are covered with posters of the English alphabet and the words for colours in Squamish. Very few learning materials exist in the language, so Joseph translates stories from English or tells Native legends. This morning she reads the story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" from an English-language book, throwing in Squamish vocabulary here and there. Over the next few months, Joseph will keep reading the book to her charges, gradually shifting completely into Squamish. She asks the children to go home and teach their parents some of the language, and at parent-teacher interviews, she often hears that moms and dads are learning vocabulary from their kids.

Four elementary schools and one high school in North Vancouver also offer Squamish-language classes. However, Deborah Jacobs, the director of the Squamish education department, says more drastic action is necessary ensure that the language gets passed on to future generations. (She's Peter Jacobs's cousin, and in the Squamish kinship system they are considered siblings.) Deborah is spearheading the development of a school on the Capilano reserve that will offer full immersion to students up to Grade 7. She hopes that the project--which is being partially funded by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada--will be built within the next three years.

The curriculum will be more than just a translation of the mainstream school system. "It's the creation of something entirely new," Deborah says at the kindergarten. "Our program is based on four pillars: home, government, family, and history. In comparison to western curriculum, it's a much more holistic way to teach a child. As we create this program, it's raising questions for us about what we value collectively and what our beliefs are."

At the new school, young children will take all of their classes in Squamish, although in the later grades they may learn math and science in English. The idea is to educate kids to be fluent in the language and have a strong sense of aboriginal identity and to produce graduates who can ease into advanced education and employment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is not for the children of the Squamish Nation but for their educators, many of whom still have a shaky grasp of the language. Even Deborah Jacobs describes herself as a "baby speaker". Before the immersion process can start, the teachers themselves must become students. Simon Fraser University is working with the Squamish Nation to design a training program that gives Squamish skills to accredited teachers and teaching skills to speakers of the language. Then it will be up to the children to achieve Peter and Deborah Jacobs's dream of creating a true community of Squamish speakers.