Future of language depends on children

By on December 1, 1999

Aboriginal children on Northern Vancouver Island have begun learning their language of Kwak’wala in school. But they can’t speak it at home with their parents, since they never learned it. Fewer than 300 people still speak Kwak’wala fluently, according to Linda Manz, executive director of the U’mista Cultural Society. The society is working hard to reverse the decline. The Anglican Church of Canada’s residential schools healing fund, designed to help Native people recover from the effects of residential schools, is playing a part. It has given $6,000 to the society to produce a hymnal that both young and old can read from. Kwak’wala was initially an oral language, Ms. Manz explained. Over the years, various systems for writing the language were developed. Finally, in 1980 a linguist worked with the society to develop an orthography to help standardize the teaching of Kwak’wala. Children are using that version in the schools. But the elders learned a different orthography and it’s theirs that appears in the Anglican Church Kwak’wala Hymnal. The hymnal project, with a total budget of $14,600, will translate those 57 hymns into the orthography in use now so both elders and young people can sing from the same hymn book. How does this project relate to residential schools? Directly, an emphatic Ms. Manz said. Students were not allowed to speak their language in the residential schools and were often beaten for doing so. Now the children are learning the language in school for the first time but their parents can’t speak it. “It’s very difficult to learn a language when you don’t get any reinforcement in the home situation,” Ms. Manz said. “So the hymnal is one of the ways to try to reinforce the use of the language on a regular basis in the community.” The hymnal will be used in church, as a teaching aid in schools, at potlatches, funerals, weddings and feasts in Kwak’wala communities. Aboriginal Neighbours, a three-year old group with the Diocese of British Columbia, has been helping the society to fundraise for the rest of the money needed to produce 1,000 copies of the hymnal. It’s been tough slogging, Mavis Gillie says. The group is using hymn sings to fundraise but aside from the healing fund, hasn’t been able to locate any other grant programs in which the hymnal project would fit the criteria. Ms. Gillie, however, is still trying. She speaks admiringly of the Natives she’s met. “Despite all the horror of what happened, the faith is still so strong among so many of them,” she said. Meanwhile, the fundraising hymn sings go on. “Much as we appreciate the $6,000, it’s not going to save the language,” Ms. Manz said. “It’s going to help a little.” Total immersion of students in the language is the only answer, she feels, noting that to develop the curriculum up to Grade 12 would cost $1-million. The healing fund donates more than $100,000 a year to projects across the country. It’s never enough, acknowledges the Anglican Church’s indigenous ministries co-ordinator Donna Bomberry. “There are always more requests than we can fund. We try to offer what we can to participate, so we can participate in many of the requests that come in, in some way,” she said.

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