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Why I Study an Endangered Language

Photo of Gitxsan Dancers at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at the UBC Museum of Anthropology

As you all know, I sort of lead a double life. I’m  full time freelance writer, but I’m also a full time 4th year anthropology student at the University of British Columbia. Anthropology wasn’t always the plan. I wanted to do good in the world, but I thought the best way for me to do that was to work for the United Nations.  I was passionate about history and International Relations, so a Poli-Sci degree seemed like a smart way to go. After two semesters of riling against propaganda-pushing professors, I needed a change. After taking a class in Human Evolution with archaeology professor Bob Muckle at Capilano University, my fate was sealed. Professor Muckle took me aside one day and asked me what I was majoring in. I told him, and he laughed. “No, no. You’re too much of a doer, you should be an anthropologist”. He was right.

Anthropology is one of those disciplines that makes people cross-eyed with confusion, yet wildly curious at the same time. If you tell someone you’re a psychologist, economist, or oncologist, they have a sense of what your day looks like. But anthropology is one of those fields with arms so far reaching, it’s difficult to sum it up in a sentence without doing the entire discipline a disservice. In short, anthropology is the study of human culture, of humanity, and all that it comprises including the social and biological aspects. That’s the super condensed, Coles Notes  version (don’t laugh, I’m from the Pre-Wikipedia era, and it was glorious!) So why am I talking about anthropology when this post is about an endangered language?

Anthropology is about learning about, and understanding culture. It’s about bridging the gap between discriminatory ignorance, and cultural knowledges (among other things). And it’s the reason why I chose to study an endangered language for my degree. I remember glancing over the language course offerings; French, Spanish, German, Russian, Mandarin. I felt so uninspired. I’d always been firmly against my limited language offerings growing up – A poor reflection of the colonial nature of the Canadian education system. Like most non-aboriginal Canadians, I had grew up on land that had once been aboriginal land, a land where bands had thrived for several thousand years, until the arrival of European settlers. The acts against aboriginal groups across this country (and the United States) were unspeakable. Imagine if you woke up one day, and you were forbidden to speak your own language. A language your mother had whispered into your crib, a language your grandparents had carried on from their grandparents, and theirs before them. Language is everything, and while my government attempted to wipe these languages out forever, I wanted to be an ally to aboriginal language revitalization, and not a perpetrator.

Approximately 60% of the First Nations languages of Canada are spoken in B.C, and there are 32 First Nations languages spoken in B.C.! For the last year and a half I’ve been studying an endangered language called Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm, a dialect of Coast Salish. There are currently only 7 semi-fluent speakers in the Musqueam Community. Students like myself, have the opportunity to study the language through the FNLG program at UBC under the direction of Professor Patricia Shaw, Elder Larry Grant and Marny Point.

So why learn an endangered language? I take Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm because it teaches me about a culture through the nuances of its language. I take it because I have the privilege and honour to travel to the Musqueam Reserve twice a week, to learn about the Musqueam People, their traditions, their relationships with one another, and most importantly, I get to hear the stories. I get to ask questions about their thoughts on contemporary life, about how things have changed, and how the language reflects these changes, and how it preserves beloved traditions of the past. Most importantly, I take it because I believe every culture has a right to know their own language, to speak it, to pass it down through generations, to celebrate it. The notion of a language dying out because of cultural genocide is unacceptable to me, and I am proud to play a role, as small as it may be, in the revitalization of an endangered language.

 

 

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