Skwomesh language revitalized by First Nation youth through DIY immersion

Welcome to Language House: a do-it-yourself immersion experiment driven by youth determined to learn and revive Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim or in English — the Skwomesh language.

'Language House' driven by youth determined to revive dying language

From left, Joshua Watts, Khelsilem and Jaymyn La Valle often speak Skwomesh while preparing and eating meals together at Language House. (CBC/Duncan McCue)

A trio of 20-somethings is carving pot roast, in a typical-looking kitchen in a typical-looking apartment in North Vancouver.

But conversation here is unlike anywhere else in the world.

"a stl'i7 u kwi staw?" asks Khelsilem, as he heaps potatoes on a plate for his sister, Jaymyn La Valle.

"en stl'i7 kwi staw," replies Joshua Watts — pointing to a water glass.

Welcome to Language House: a do-it-yourself immersion experiment driven by youth determined to learn and revive Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim or in English — the Skwomesh language. (The 7 represents a glottal stop or a slight pause.)

Skwomesh language 'endangered'

Khelsilem, middle, black headband, launched his blog,, to teach Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim using podcasts and YouTube videos. (Kris Krug)
The trio moved in together last autumn after the 25-year-old
Khelsilem (his traditional Skwomesh name) put a call out to his fellow Squamish Nation members asking who would like to devote themselves to learning their ancestral tongue — by living with him in an immersion-like setting, instead of attending a weekly class.

"You can take a French class in high school and get straight As, but not be able to have a conversation in French," says Khelsilem.

"In Language House, we ask: can you actually communicate? You have to learn to communicate these things with each other in the house, daily."

The Squamish Nation has a population of 4,000 members with a vast traditional territory that ranges from North Vancouver to the city of Squamish, 64 kilometres north of Vancouver.

But a 2014 report on the status of B.C. First Nations languages listed Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim as "critically endangered," with only seven remaining fluent speakers.

"If we don't pull together and put in work, there aren't going to be any speakers left. I don't want my language to die," says La Valle.

About five per cent of community members are considered language learners. Their options for learning are limited to Skwomesh classes in local elementary and high schools. There are also evening classes for adult learners, which are university-accredited but sporadic. The precarious nature of his community's language makes Khelsilem question how effective classroom learning is. 

"We're getting our ass kicked. You have language courses getting funded pretty substantially for the last 20 to 30 years, and they haven't made a dent in this issue. When it comes to language revitalization, we need to have conversations about how we're actually going to move the yardstick – or get out of the game."

Crowd-funded language learning

A notable feature of Language House is that the young residents didn't seek any government funding to start or run the program.

"I didn't want to wait anymore," says Khelsilem. "If you look at where language funding comes from and how often it dries up because government priorities change, we get capped off at the knees. I want to demonstrate that you can build a language program without government funding."

The roommates share the $2,350 monthly rent for their three-bedroom apartment.

If our languages die and go extinct, our ability to interpret our inherent rights and responsibilities as indigenous people will be severely limited.- Khelsilem, founder of Language House

Last fall, they raised $2,700, selling a Skwomesh language T-shirt in a crowd-sourced online campaign. They used those donations to buy dishes, cutlery, furniture and other household goods for Language House.

Once settled into their new home, the trio started beginner language lessons, taught by KhelsilemLa Valle, 23, had taken language classes in school, but Watts, 20, only knew "baby talk" and admits being nervous.

"I don't really know a whole lot of the language. Maybe it's not gonna make a whole lot of sense, and I'm gonna talk funny," said Watts, who is of Nuu-chah-nuulth ancestry but grew up in Squamish

"Learning the language is probably one of the most time-consuming things you can do. But if you want to learn, you have to make the commitment."

Carving out practice time is a challenge, as all three lead busy lives. Khelsilem is a self-employed language and PR consultant; Watts and Lavallee are both students in environmental sciences at Simon Fraser University.

They try to set aside time twice a week to prepare and eat meals together, during which Khelsilem leads conversations in Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim. They also phone each other daily, practising set conversations in the language.

Other language learners sometimes join them for social gatherings specifically to speak Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim. They also invite elders to drop by for talks.

"I live with people that I can actually share language with, rather than learning the language at classes, then going home and not being able to speak to anybody," says La Valle.

Dreaming of language academy

The residents of Language House - Khelsilem, Jaymyn La Valle, Joshua Watts and sḵwemáy̓ (dog) Lindy - speak Skwomesh every day in their North Vancouver apartment. (CBC/Duncan McCue)
Khelsilem, a semi-fluent speaker of Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim, began learning from cassette tapes as a teenager. Once he became more proficient, he launched an online language blog in 2011, designed to reach and teach Squamish Nation members in any location with his self-designed podcasts and YouTube videos.

The residents of Language House recently revitalized the blog to promote their long-term dream: a Skwomesh Language Academy. It would be a full-time Sk̲wx̱wú7mesh sníchim immersion program for adult learners.

"If our languages die and go extinct, our ability to interpret our inherent rights and responsibilities as indigenous people will be severely limited," Khelsilem says.

The academy was inspired by immersion programs run by other indigenous communities, such as successful efforts by fluent speakers of Kanien'keha (Mohawk language) to run immersion programs in various communities in Ontario, Quebec and New York state.

The trio hopes to launch the Skwomesh Language Academy in 2016, funded by donations.

"With monthly donations that amount to a cup of coffee a month … we could change the entire course of our language's trajectory," says their website.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.


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