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  • Matt Windsor

UVic Linguistics Conference & SIL Retreat


Recently Caitlin and I spent weekend at a linguistic conference in at the University of Victoria, followed by a week-long linguistics retreat in Bellingham. The conference in Victoria largely focussed on indigenous languages of North America (particularly of BC) and issues of language revitalization. There are about 30 languages in BC and most of them are spoken by a smaller amount of elders in remote communities. Linguists from local universities like UVic are helping these communities keep their languages alive – a difficult but not impossible task. Most of the challenges First Nations communities are facing are related to the extremely sudden amount of cultural change they’ve experienced in the last century. By continuing to speak their own language, these communities maintain a measure of cultural continuity as they adapt.

On the other end of Canada, the languages we’ll be working with like Naskapi, Innu, Cree and Ojibwe are spoken by thousands of people in communities where children still learn them as their first language. When it comes to language development over there, our role will be more preventative – for example, helping communities develop bilingual education programs that allow native kids to keep learning in their own language while they learn English.

The benefits of this are significant on many levels – it lessens the cultural disconnect between the young and the old, it honours the value of that Nation’s culture, and it helps the children learn effectively. Even when it comes to improving their English skills, children actually achieve better in school when they have already been introduced to reading and writing in a language they can already speak (imagine learning to read for the first time in French before you’d ever seen written English!).

What was neat about the UVic conference was it wasn’t a discussion designed solely for scholarly linguists about how to study First Nations languages; it was a discussion for First Nations leaders, community linguists and university linguists to share the different ways they have been collaborating to revitalize their languages.  One of the major topics was story-telling, and many presenters simply shared stories that illustrated the importance of their language in their community and the change that can happen with revitalization.

After UVic, we attended a retreat in Bellingham for Wycliffe/SIL members (“Bible translators”) working with minority languages across North America. The majority of the people there had at least 30 years on us and a lifetime of wisdom to share. One couple we met has been working with the Yup’ik on St. Laurence Island between Russia and Alaska for over 60 years (they were in their eighties). The nature of their work changed drastically when the Russian and US presidents agreed to restore visa-free visiting privileges to the Yup’ik community, which is divided between Siberia (Russia) and St Laurence Island (US). Families were reunited and suddenly the translation project could include a whole other community of Yup’ik speakers. The Yup’ik New Testament is now being published both in a roman script (the alphabet we use in English) and in a Cyrillic script (the Russian alphabet).

I appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference at UVic and the SIL retreat back to back. The linguists at UVic and the linguists at Wycliffe/SIL both have a servant attitude in their approach to indigenous communities. Whether the project is to make a Bible translation, a dictionary, a grammatical description, literacy materials, or audio recordings, they emphasize the need for work to be conducted for, with and by the language-speaking community.1 When we move to Kawawa it will be important for Caitlin and I to build genuine, long-term relationships with the people there, and to work collaboratively with the elders to decide the goals and methods of our projects.

When a community like Kawawa is invested in a translation project, they have ownership of the translated scriptures and actually use the Bible in their own language once it is translated. They also gain skills that empower them to manage their own language resources and reach out to other communities. After our experience of studying for four years at UVic, this is part of the reason we respect the approach Bill and Norma Jean have taken in their work, and why we are excited to work with the Naskapi, who have as much to teach us about their language and culture as we have to offer them as trained linguists.

1. Czaykowska-Higgins, Ewa. 2009. “Research Models, Community Engagement, and Linguistic Fieldwork: Reflections
   on Working within Canadian Indigenous Communities.” Language Documentation & Conservation 3(1). p.24
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