Sunday September 17, 2017

Haida language nest offers youngest speakers the chance to learn ancestral language

Kungjuuday teaches at the language nest at the Haida Youth Centre in Old Masset.

Kungjuuday teaches at the language nest at the Haida Youth Centre in Old Masset. (Erica Daniels/CBC)

Listen 9:23

The Haida language is a piece of culture that was nearly lost due to smallpox, residential schools, church and government interventions.

Though there was a time when all Haida were fluent in their language, today there are only three or four dozen speakers. Nearly all of them are over the age of 70.

But there is hope for the next generation.

Some people, like Kungjuuday, are making strides to restore the language. She is one of two Haida language teachers in the village of Old Masset.

A few times a week, Kungjuuday walks the short distance from her home to the Haida Youth Centre to teach the youth how to speak their ancestral language. Some, are only a few months old when they start coming to the language nest.

"It's important for me because I really don't want our language to die. I want it to survive," she said. "It's hard work. It's really hard work, a lot of the times. But it's so much fun too."

The loss of the Haida language is a reflection of Canadian history as government and missionary intervention robbed the Haida of their traditional homes, clothing, ceremonies, and language.

Kungjuuday explained how, even after residential schools, the fluent ones wouldn't speak their language. "But there were some people, they grew up and they heard it being spoken. So, these people are the 'silent speakers'."

The 'silent speakers' are people who know the nuances of the language when they hear it being spoken, but cannot actively speak it themselves.

Kungjuuday believes being exposed to the language as an infant can make all the difference. It's the small children, even the non-verbal ones, who come to the language nest program that keep her coming back.

"I have hope that if we start them from this young in age, maybe it will become a lifelong passion to want to continue to learn the language."