How do you save a dying language?

Liq’wala Language Society looks to school system to increase numbers of fluent speakers

Laurie Lewis says there are only 12 fluent Liq’wala speakers left, and she worries that without help, their language will die.

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the Liq’wala Language Revitalization Committee, presented to the Campbell River School District board of education recently the idea of an immersion program that she says would go a long way toward saving a language that has been spoken in this area for thousands of years.

Liq’wala is the regional dialect of Kwak’wala, spoken by the We Wai Kai, the Wei Wai Kum and the Kwiakah First Nations, Lewis says.

“Although our language is supported within the school district, we are not producing fluency. We are finding it very hard to maintain a continuity and a solid sustainability for our language, so what we would like to propose is that we consider changing the model within our district, somewhat.”

Lewis points to community like Adams Lake, where a “language nest” model is used to educate First Nations children in their native language even before they enter kindergarten and then transition them into a kindergarten immersion program.

Other communities have created more of a “cohort model” where there is one intake of three-to-six year-old students who move through the program together for four years.

“It’s been proven in many studies that the immersion model has a high success rate,” Lewis says.

“We can create fluent speakers, and right now, we’re at the critical phase. We have 12 people left who are fluent, and when they go …” she leaves it hanging.

Those 12 speakers, Lewis says, are all over 70 years old, “and they’re dying off at an alarming rate.”

Trustee John Kerr asked Lewis how they could start an immersion program “when there are only 12 fluent speakers of the language, and the only people who are fluent are 70-80 years old? I would exepct that none of them are young enough to be in a classroom on a day-to-day basis.”

Lewis says they already have a mentor-apprentice program where a fluent elder works one-on-one with a qualified teacher for 300 hours, and between that elder and teacher, she is confident they could create a three-year pilot program that would provide a full immersion program.

“We just want three years to make some fluent speakers so we can save our language,” Lewis says, “and I want to have the conversation about how we can do that. We believe we can do it.”

It’s a conversation the board seems willing to engage in, based on their responses and questions for Lewis at the meeting. But as Trustee Richard Franklin pointed out, it will take money to incorporate any of these ideas into district programming.

“I think we should do whatever we can to help save the language,” Franklin says, suggesting that the district could possibly partner with someone like the Kwakiutl District Council in aquiring some grants of some kind and form a cohort of students to get this thing going before it’s too late.

Trustee Darryl Hagen agrees that the board needs to consider this carefully – and quickly.

“This board has always been committed to saving the local language,” Hagen says. And now, like you say, it’s becoming critical.”