British Columbia

'We have great hope': Increasing number of young people learning Indigenous languages in B.C.

Nearly all of the dozens of Indigenous languages in British Columbia are threatened with extinction but, according to a local First Nations organization, the tide is turning as more and more young people learn the languages.

Almost 80 per cent of the people learning the languages are under 25

A bilingual roadside mileage sign is shown along the Sea to Sky Highway in Squamish, B.C. Several schools in the province have immersive programs for Indigenous languages. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)

Nearly all of the dozens of Indigenous languages in British Columbia are threatened with extinction but, according to a local First Nations organization, the tide is turning as more and more young people learn the languages. 

Aliana Parker, language programs manager with the First Peoples' Cultural Council on Vancouver Island, said the "huge amount of effort" to revitalize the languages appears to be paying off. 

"There has been 150 years or more of policies that have deliberately aimed to extinguish these languages and, because of that, all of the Indigenous languages in B.C. have severe threats to their vitality," Parker said. 

"But we have great hope that the trend is reversing."

B.C. is home to 34 distinct Indigenous languages, from seven different language families. 

The languages within a linguistic family could be as similar as Italian and Spanish, Parker said, but languages from different families can be as different as Korean and English. 

"B.C. has a very rich linguistic heritage," she told CBC's On The Coast

"These are the original languages of this land and they're not spoken anywhere else in the world."

Language programs

A report by the First Peoples' Cultural Council from last year found that only three per cent of the population in First Nations communities are fluent speakers of those languages; the number has decreased over the last few years as the older generation ages and passes away. 

"But we also saw an increase in the number of language learners, especially young language learners,"  Parker said.

Since 2014, the number of fluent speakers aged 24 and under has more than doubled. 

Parker pointed to immersion programs at some schools on Vancouver Island and immersive "language nest" programs for children under the age of five in northern B.C. as just a couple of examples. 

"Children can grow up speaking their Indigenous language as a first language — fluently bilingual with English," she said. 

Other initiatives, like programs in the Okanagan geared toward adults, are also showing success, she added. 

According to the First Peoples' Cultural Council's report, though, about 78 per cent of the people learning the languages are under the age of 25. 

"Language revitalization is very complex work and it won't happen overnight but there's a lot that is being done," Parker said. 

"We have great hope."

With files from On The Coast

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