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You'd Care If The English Or French Language Disappeared

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According to a 2010 First People's Council report, my heritage language is the third most endangered indigenous language in British Columbia. It is the language of this land that Vancouver currently resides on -- and today it has less than six fluent speakers alive in the world.

My nation once numbered between 42,000-90,000 before foreign disease decimated our population to less than 400 within a 120-year timespan. This initiated a catastrophic decline in fluent speakers of Skwo-mesh.

B.C. anthropologist Wade Davis captures a beautiful thought on the value of heritage language and the world's cultural diversity when he said in a famous TED Talk:

"... a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It's a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities."

The common question we receive from mono-lingual speakers is, "Why should I care? Languages die all the time. Wouldn't the world be better if we only spoke five or seven languages?"

But what if those languages were to be Nēhiyawēwin, Kwak̓wala, Kanien'kéha' and not Eng­lish, French, or Span­ish. Imagine the death of your fluent language and suddenly you start to feel what hundreds of heritage language commu­ni­ties around the world are expe­ri­enc­ing right now due to the impacts of moder­nity and ongoing colo­nial­ism.

It is esti­mated in the next 25 years that over 600 indige­nous lan­guages will go extinct.

Revi­tal­iz­ing Sḵwx̱wú7mesh is about reviv­ing an iden­tity that is both essential and useful. Every lan­guage car­ries the col­lec­tive per­spec­tives and ideas of hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions who have shaped it. A lan­guage informs how one relates. My lan­guage informs me on how to relate to the land, to my fam­ily, to my peo­ple, to my spirit, to my life, and to the universe. And every language has its own unique way of doing the same thing, but differently.

Upon travelling to other countries, one of the first indicators of being in a new place is the moment we encounter its language. But perhaps the lines are blurry and you didn't realize you are living in someone else's country.

Perhaps you were never told, but the land on which you live, work, and play on is a country that is not your own. That this is another nation's country and you are living in it. Except you would never know that because the language of this country was almost exterminated. It was particularly attacked so that you would never know the people it belonged to ever existed.

Languages can be revitalized. Noted socio-linguist and expert on reversing the decline of heritage language speakers, Joshua Fishman, speaks to successful strategies such as utilizing institutions that already exist by making them into places where "the language is used habitually and exclusively."

He also speaks to the importance of successful strategies that do not depend on institutions from the "great white father" in one's language context because "they almost always pull support" when support is critical for advancing to the next stages of the strategy.

The need and desire to revive our language is why two friends and I are hatching a plan to become fluent in Skwo-mesh language. I would characterize myself as a superior-level speaker in proficiency and somewhere a bit below that in fluency.

Starting in October, we will move into what we are calling a language immersion house. The goal of the project is to create a non-classroom environment where the language is used habitually or exclusively with fluent elders and speakers visiting on a regular basis to help advance our knowledge of our language and culture. It's a pilot project with goals to build a lasting language immersion program that will ultimately create a generation of fluent speakers in the community.

To do this, we're fundraising to cover costs like materials, video and audio equipment, and other miscellaneous items we may need. Join the project by buying a T-shirt through our teespring campaign here.

Reclaiming our language is about many things. If we think of language as a library of thought -- full of wonders and possibilities -- then for me right now reclaiming my heritage language is about rebuilding my peoples' library of thought.

If we can have another way of knowing and viewing the world, we can create solutions and ideas for our people's future, and we would never think of using English (or any other colonial language). The answers for how to build a healthier community can come from the language and thoughts of my ancestors that are contained in our language.

And that it would be pretty damn cool if the language of this country (not Canada; the real country you are in) could be spoken in the homelands again by a thriving and advancing people for all to connect to.

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