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Program looks to save endangered languages

A master-apprentice language learning program to create new speakers of endangered languages is offering its second free workshop at Dauphin Friendship Centre, Nov. 17 and 18.
Project director Heather Souter explained the Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle is a grassroots, all volunteer, community group based in Camperville.
She said the master-apprentice program was developed in California about 25 years ago by indigenous people for indigenous people.
“California is somewhat similar to B.C. in the fact that they have many, many indigenous languages and colonization was not kind to them. And even 25 years ago there were quite a few languages that had very few speakers left,” Souter said.
“And so it was in response to that critical endangerment of these languages that they started to create a program that would allow inter-generational transfer to happen in the community, especially with these smaller languages that are under researched and under resourced.”
With the master-apprentice program, she said, a fluent speaker works with a motivated and committed adult learner of the language, to do one-on-one immersion in the community and at home.
It is based on using only the language, no reading and writing, Souter said, so the speaker is not required to have any formal education, they just need to be fluent in their language and share it with a willing learner.
The speaker and learner are encouraged to come as a team, she said, selecting someone that wants to learn, or a learner finds a speaker that is willing to share their language with them.
“Often they are even in the same family and that works well because we don’t have to worry about all of the relationship building that needs to happen when you’re going to work closely together,” she added.
As immersion is quite tiring in the beginning, Souter said, the speaker and learner may only be able to stay in the language for five minutes at a time.
To assist the process, she said, they use an egg timer to take a break and then go back in.
“And bit by bit they increase the time, so they build their language learning muscles up until they’re doing 20 minutes 30 minutes and then you know at a certain point they don’t need the egg timer anymore,” Souter added.
A full program is about 1,000 hours over three years, she said, because it takes a long time to learn the language, even in immersion.
There are usually two training sessions a year, she noted, and people learn different skills as they progress from beginner to intermediate.
Souter is Metis and learned to speak Michif, the language of the Metis people, later in life, which ignited a passion for revitalizing endangered languages.
“I’ve always loved language. So I was living in Tokyo, I was a simultaneous conference interpreter and translator and taught at a couple of post-secondary institutions there, as well,” she said.
“I started to wonder how our languages are faring and I took a look and they weren’t faring very well, especially Michif.”
Souter admitted her dream is to find people of childbearing age that want to learn their language and pass it on and become apprentices.
“Hopefully teach their babies to speak, so we’d have first language speakers, mother tongue speakers of all languages again and that they would be able to bring this immersion out into the schools,” she said.
“And eventually develop language nests which are kind of preschools in the language and then develop full immersion programs in schools. We really don’t have the time to wait anymore and luckily there’s more expertise out there now after so much time has passed and there’s more interest.”
Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle has a $94,000 grant from the Canadian Heritage Aboriginal Language Initiative for the pilot project and will host a third workshop in March.
For more information, or to apply, contact Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle at p@wilrc@gmail.com or call 204-647-0081.

M. A. Nyquist