Pilot program helps Indigenous language speakers find their voices — again

Pilot programs connects 'silent speakers' with fluent speakers, a mental health professional and language specialist to overcome barriers and start speaking language.

'I remember that was all we spoke before we went to school'

Splatsín​ Elder Ethel Thomas grew up speaking her language, but had it drilled out of her in residential school. (Submitted by Ethel Thomas)

The far-reaching impacts of residential school prevented Ethel Thomas from speaking her Indigenous language of Splatsín.

She could understand the language of her people — members of the Shuswap Nation in B.C.'s southern Interior — but the trauma of residential school made her embarrassed to speak it.

"There was a lot of stuff that happened. I grew up being ashamed of being who I was," said Thomas. "I tried really hard to speak English and I became shy."

Participants in the First Peoples' Cultural Council pilot program called Silent Speakers that ran last year at the Splatsín​ Tsm7aksaltn Society (Splatsín ​Teaching Centre) in the Splatsín ​First Nation near Enderby, B.C. (Jackie Pearase/RiverTalk)

It's shame that prevented her from speaking her language for most of her life, but with the encouragement of her sister she took part in a pilot program by the First Peoples' Cultural Council, FPCC.

The program helps those who understand their language start speaking again by connecting them with fluent speakers, a mental health professional and a First Peoples' Cultural Council language specialist.

"I remember that was all we spoke before we went to school was our language," said Thomas.

Thomas, along with approximately 150,000 other Indigenous people in the last century, attended church- and government-run residential schools where they were punished for speaking anything but English.

Other barriers preventing people from speaking Indigenous languages include forced relocation and intergenerational trauma. 

Pilot program

In order to help those who understand but can't speak their language, the FPCC — a First Nations-run crown corporation focused on revitalizing Indigenous languages — is developing the Silent Speakers program.

Thomas was a part of the second pilot program that ran in March of 2017 for 10 weeks at the Splatsín​ Tsm7aksaltn Society (Splatsín ​Teaching Centre), in the Splatsín ​First Nation near Enderby, B.C.

Community pilot project coordinator Rosalind Williams. (Aaron Leon)

"It instilled a lot of pride ... in my language and who I am," said Thomas. "Creating that passion to teach and learn. That is my passion now."

Community pilot program coordinator Rosalind Williams said it gave participants an understanding of "the role that they play and how important it is for them to really to begin speaking again. It's important to the community and it's important to their families."

The program has been adapted from the curriculum of the Indigenous Sami people living in Norway and Sweden. The program uses cognitive behaviour therapy, the same therapy used for a wide array of health and mental health issues ranging including smoking cessation, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The language program is not therapy, but it helps participants retrain their brain to overcome language barriers.

Participants are able to identify the distressing thoughts that prevent them from speaking and then work with a counsellor to restructure their thoughts "into something that's more realistic and more true," said Holly Dalgleish, the clinical social worker and therapist of the Splatsín​ pilot program.

Dalgleish recently interviewed participants as part of a review of the program and found they have since seen gains in their language use. As a result participants are also more engaged in participating in community activities and ceremonies.

Clinical social worker and therapist Holly Dalgleish (Submitted by Holly Dalgleish )

"Language plays such an important part in our health and our mental health. So the more we can get it out there, the better off people will be," said Dalgleish.

Language revitalization for the future

The government of B.C. is spending $50 million on language revitalization and that has sparked hope that the Silent Speakers program can move beyond the pilot stage.

Language champions like Williams hope this will help carry the language forward to the next generation.

"The young people have the desire to learn and they keep asking. They keep putting forth their desire to learn," said Williams. "They will be the ones that actually draw people out of the woodwork."

Thomas says it was her sister who drew her to the pilot program, but it's the younger generation that keeps her going.

"We need to start speaking our language," said Thomas "That is my passion now. The culture. Teaching the kids what I know."


Jonathan Ventura is a video journalist currently working for CBC Manitoba.