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Project revitalizes ancient language

Program participants use modern technology to preserve dialect
Laura Walz

A project to save Tla’Amin (Sliammon) First Nation’s language has the added benefit of bringing elders and young people together. As elders contribute their knowledge of the language, young people learn new words from them, as well as a deeper understanding of their culture and history.

Funded through a grant from Aboriginal Languages Initiative, part of Canadian Heritage’s Aboriginal Peoples’ Program, a team has been recording words and phrases, then uploading the files to First Voices, a suite of web-based tools and services designed to support aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching and culture revitalization.

So far, 2,837 words and 1,562 phrases have been recorded on the First Voices website. Betty Wilson, who is part of the team, said linguists believe at least 20,000 words and phrases need to be preserved to save a language.

“Our history is really important,” said Wilson. “Who we are, that knowledge comes from the elders. Using the old words is important so we know who we are.”

Sliammon is a dialect, part of the Coast Salish language group. While there are similarities with other dialects, there are many differences. Over the years, the language has changed with the introduction of English or French words and one of the aims of the project is to capture as many old words as possible.

The First Voices website includes Sliammon’s alphabet and the orthography, which is different from English phonics. “Other first nations groups around the province and across Canada use this alphabet as well,” Wilson explained.

The standard layout allows many people to learn the language. Visitors to the website can choose which words to learn, alphabetically or by searching in categories. Verbs include tenses and all possible variations are also recorded.

The program has revitalized the language, both for older community members and younger ones. Tla’Amin has had a language program in Powell River schools for 15 years, so many of the young people in their 20s are familiar with the orthography, but perhaps haven’t had the opportunity to speak it frequently. “We’re all learners in terms of the language, especially the old, old language,” said Wilson.

Visitors to the Tla’Amin section on the First Voices website can listen to a welcome, spoken by Dave Dominick, who will be 83 in March. He is one of the main sources for old words. “It’s important to carry on the speech of the elders for our people,” he said. Many young people who don’t live in the community can visit the website and listen to their language being spoken again.

Phil Russell, a volunteer with the project, has been taking videos of working sessions with elders. Wilson then uses the videos to help her when she is stuck on a word. “Sometimes it’s really hard to hear a word all by yourself,” she said. “If I’m stuck on a word, then I go to the CD and listen to it over again.” That way, Wilson can hear which sounds a person is making and write the word correctly. “The qs and the ks are really hard to distinguish in our language sometimes. The q starts at the back of the throat and sometimes ends up partway through your mouth. K words are said in the front of your mouth.”

Three young women working on the project, Devin Pielle, Sosan Blaney and Eileen Francis, said the work has revitalized their interest in their language and culture.

Blaney has been working with Wilson on the program since December. Her job is to record speakers and upload the digital sound files to the First Voices website. As well, Blaney records and uploads video clips. “It’s been helping me learn a lot of the words, because I have to sit here all day and listen to them over and over and over again to edit them,” she said. “I’m also seeing the words written out in the orthography, so it’s really helped me to brush up on my orthography skills, as well as teach me a lot of new words.”

She also loves interviewing elders, Blaney said. “It’s so great to hear the elders speak, hear the language and be immersed in the language. It’s probably the closest thing to a full immersion that I could get right now.”

Blaney, who is 23, moved back to the community last May after being in school for five years. She took first nations studies at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. “A lot of the classes had a focus on oral stories, oral histories. Our stories really are the basis of our cultural identity. Hearing the stories told in our language brings a whole new dimension to it. Being able to have a job where I can learn the language, be immersed in the language every day is a blessing. It’s an awesome job to have.”

As well as graduating from university in April, she had a baby the same month, Menat’they Pechawis-Blaney. Reviving the language has become more a priority for her since her son was born, because she wants it to be there for him. She gave her son a Sliammon name and speaks to him in the Sliammon language. “I want to give him a strong start in our culture and our language and that starts with his name,” she said.

Francis, 20, said she has enjoyed being immersed in the language and using the orthography again. “Growing up in the schools, we used orthography,” she said. “It’s been a real plus to actually have a basic knowledge of it.”

Francis has been focusing on sentence structure, to be able to have a full conversation. She said she’s fascinated when an elder comes in to record one word, but that one word will trigger a string of other words. Then she tries to write the words down, using the orthography, a tool that works because she couldn’t capture the words using the English alphabet.

Both her great-grandparents would tell stories in the Sliammon language and those memories have stayed with her, Francis said. “They’re stories that everybody heard and knew by heart.”

Interested readers can learn more about Sliammon’s language online.