Wednesday, May 05, 2010

NAT: Last few speakers

Native languages face extinction
Culture: Snuneymuxw experience reflects trend across B.C.
By Dustin Walker, The Daily News, May 4, 2010

There are only five Snuneymuxw people left who are fluent in the traditional Hul'q'umi'num' language, elder Gary Manson estimates.

"And that's probably pushing it."

A report released last week on the demise of First Nations languages in B.C. says that three languages are designated as "sleeping" with no fluent speakers and 22 are nearly extinct. The Hul'q'umi'num' language, traditionally spoken by First Nations from the Malahat to Nanoose Bay, has 278 fluent speakers and is classified as "severely endangered."

No one will be fluent in most of B.C.'s 32 First Nations languages within six years if action isn't taken to prevent the decline, says the report by the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council, a crown corporation created to help First Nations revitalize their languages and arts.

Manson hopes the new report will raise more awareness about the need to preserve traditional languages.

He's been training with another elder in Chemainus to better learn Hul'q'umi'num' and understands how difficult mastering the language can be.

"The trouble is there's no one to talk to," said Manson, who is semi-fluent. "We've got to start speaking it somewhere."

He feels it will be his responsibility to teach other people the language once he completes the program this summer. But Manson thinks more government funding for education is needed to keep the dialect alive.

"That's the only way it's going to be saved I think."

Elder Ellen White is one of the few Snuneymuxw people who is fluent in the Hul'q'umi'num' language. She began teaching it in the 1950s and 1960s and later studied at the University of Victoria.

Now retired, White still offers assistance to Vancouver Island University, which offers a First Nations language course.

"It seems to be coming back here in Nanaimo," she said.

While 2% of the total population that speaks the Hul'q'umi'num' language is fluent, 5% are semi-speakers and 17% are learners.

Although there are 278 people who are fluent, many of them are very old, said White.

"It makes it difficult for them to teach, they're hard of hearing. And there's a lot of aching bones, so they don't get out as much anymore."

B.C. is home to 60% of Canada's indigenous languages.

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