Wednesday September 17, 2014

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Technology and 10%: Language Revitalization

What started with a tweet and led to an 8-year plan, Dustin Rivers of the Skwxwú7mesh and Kwakwaka’wakw nations is armed to revitalize his Indigenous Squamish language.

In an article for Pacific Rim magazine, RPM’s own Joi T. Arcand talks with Dustin Rivers about his modern take on language revitalization. Arcand shares some remarkable statistics – apparently only 5.1 percent of B.C. First Nations people are fluent speakers of their language, making each language nearly extinct if not extinct already. Of Rivers’ Squamish language, he estimates there are only 4 fluent speakers left.

There is also this number: 10 percent. That’s what it takes to bring a language back to life. If 1 in 10 members of a Nation are fluent, their language can be saved from extinction.

From Language Warrior:

Rivers has a plan to make that happen. “I have an eight-stage strategy that I’m following, developed by American linguist, Joshua Fishman. His strategy helps you identify where your language is on the scale, so you can appropriately accomplish the next step.” Rivers says that Skwxwú7mesh Sníchim is still in the early stage: getting an adult generation of speakers who act as language apprentices, and as bridges between elders and the youth. He says, “if we’re there and we start creating newspapers in Squamish or writing books in Squamish, they’re not going to be entirely useful until there are people who are able to read them.” He says that time and resources spent on producing written learning tools could be better used to address the issue of where the language is at now, and getting it to the next level, which is creating an integrated group of active speakers where the language is used habitually or exclusively.

Rivers incorporates a language-learning method called Where Are Your Keys (WAYK) – a method he learned about after posting on Twitter that he wanted to learn his language within a set timeframe. The tweet came across the the radar of the WAYK developers – Portland, Oregon, based Evan Gardner and Willem Larson – who reached out to Rivers that they knew a way.

…Gardner describes WAYK as “an open-source, community-based method designed to accelerate the language-learning process.” The game incorporates sign language, special rules, and techniques that help transfer language faster from one person to another. A typical game has players sit around a table where they interact with simple objects, such as rocks, sticks and pens. Players learn by passing questions and answers about the objects back and forth.

Larson and Gardner had been working with First Nation communities in Oregon and Washington for about 10 years when they began to develop a larger web presence…

“We emailed [Rivers] and said we know a way. Any community that actually wants to bring their language back just needs to have someone that says, ‘Okay, I’ll do it’.”

Dustin Rivers has become to go-to person for learning the Squamish language. He has organized weekly language nights, immersion gatherings, a podcast and SquamishLanguage.com, coining the term for himself “language revitalization activist”. You could say he isn’t just talking the talk, but talking is the aim of his actions.

Read the whole story at langara.bc.ca/prm.

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