Language Preservation

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Thu Jun 1 18:54:26 UTC 2006

Preserving a language

Luke Brocki , Peak Reporter 

[photo inset - TEACHING TRADITION: Betty Wilson, first nations
coordinator for School District 47, has been instrumental in the
continuing development of the Klah ah men Language Program. Working
with elders, linguists, teachers and the Tla'Amin (Sliammon) cultural
department, Wilson infuses lesson plans with traditional knowledge
while translating the spoken tongue into written word.]

Tla'Amin elders participate in teaching Klah ah men language to students
in School District 47

Linguists describe the process of translation as decoding the meaning of
a source text and recoding that meaning into the target language. The
goal of translation is to ensure both the source and target texts
communicate the same message. But what happens when there is no source

Until recently, the Tla'Amin (Sliammon) language was a purely oral
language, passed from generation to generation through stories and
song. In recent years, local first nation educators developed a written
form of the tongue, racing against time to record the language with the
help of the only resource they can access: aging elders.

"In Tla'Amin language you associate culture with the teachings," said
Betty Wilson, first nations coordinator for School District 47. "Every
time you lose a language, you lose a cultural being and it makes the
whole world a little poorer. That's why we teach languages."

When School District 47 approved implementation of the Tla'Amin language
curriculum into the public school system 15 years ago, the notation
involved English phonics, blending letters to make certain sounds, but
being unable to represent others sounds not found in English
pronunciation. Ten years ago, the Tla'Amin language program adopted the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a system of phonetic notation
created by British language teachers in the 1880s intended as a
standard for representation of all spoken languages.

"Linguists gave us a crash immersion course in language writing," said

In principle, IPA provides a separate symbol for each sound, avoiding
letter combinations, or digraphs, such as sh and th in English
orthography and ambiguity such as the different pronunciations of c in

"We teach students the grammatical writing so that eventually, if they
come across words they haven't been taught, they can start recording
them themselves."

Several years ago, Wilson started negotiating with BC's universities to
get Klah ah men recognized in academia and offer courses at the
post-secondary level.

"But we needed to have a dictionary to get it university credited," said
Gail Blaney, who teaches the language at Oceanview Secondary School.

Numerous elders went into a recording studio to have their conversations
recorded and made available for review and study.

"The CDs are that dictionary," said Blaney. "It took quite a few years.
Listening to them speak, writing it down and translating things. . .
It's always going to be a learning process."

Since then, the language has been accepted as a second language for
university entry to Simon Fraser University and the University of
Victoria. Negotiations with the University of BC are ongoing.

The toils of recording the complete set of words and phrases that make
up the language are far from over. "Right now we're trying to collate
what we have and see what's missing," said Wilson.

There are elders to interview, documents to collect and amalgamate,
tapes and CDs to hear and transcribe.

She's battling software problems--finding a universal IPA-compatible
font has been a challenge--while creating an electronic dictionary from
the language CDs.

In the curriculum Wilson sets for the schools, lessons are illustrated
through traditional cultural knowledge, but outside influence is
pushing for a modernization. "Refrigerators are new, cars are new.
Young people use slang just like everyone else. All language is
transition. All language is change."

Interest in the language programs has been high at the elementary and
middle school level, with strategies in the works to bolster senior
student participation.

Wayne Pielle, a Tla'Amin language teacher at Brooks Secondary School, is
excited about the program's success. "People are starting to realize who
their neighbours are in the community," he said.

The Klah ah men Language Program is offered from kindergarten to grade
12 at James Thomson Elementary School, Oceanview and Brooks,
respectively. It is open to all interested students, regardless of

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