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B.C.'s native languages at risk of extinction

Indigenous languages in British Columbia are at risk of disappearing as the number of fluent speakers dwindles and school and community language programs struggle to keep them alive, says a new report.

Of 32 languages identified in the study, all are endangered and three are "sleeping," with no known living speakers, says the Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010.

PDF: Languages at risk

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"All provinces are in the same boat, but in B.C., the situation is worse because we have so many languages," said Lorna Williams, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Learning at the University of Victoria and who contributed to the recently released report.

The study, based on community surveys, found fluent speakers accounted for 5.1 per cent of the more than 100,000 members covered by the report and that most of those speakers were over 65.

A larger percentage, 8.2 per cent, identified themselves as "semi-fluent," but the level of fluency varied widely.

The report was released by The First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council, a provincial crown corporation founded in 1990 with a mandate to preserve native language and culture. B.C. is home to 60 per cent of the indigenous languages in Canada, with 32 languages and roughly 59 dialects, the group said.

The Assembly of First Nations and other groups have long argued for more attention to be focused on language preservation because of the links among language, culture and community health, Namgis First Nation chief Bill Cranmer said on Sunday.

"It is important because the people who are fluent are in their 60s and 70s, and there are getting to be fewer and fewer of them."

Communities are launching programs in a bid to strengthen and maintain indigenous languages, the report said, citing preschool language immersion "nests," apprentice programs that pair new language learners with community elders, and language and culture camps.

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So far, the most successful programs appear to be those that bring multiple generations together, such as one in Mount Currie that paired parents-to-be who didn't speak their native language with older mentors, including parents and grandparents, Ms. Williams said.

When babies were born, they were exposed to their parents speaking an indigenous language as well as English. Those children are now in grade school and continuing to speak two languages in an immersion schooling approach.

"Reconnecting generations needs to be built into every program," Ms. Williams said. "That's why school-only programs don't work. Because they don't reconnect the generations."

Since it was founded as a crown corporation, the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council has distributed $20-million to aboriginal communities throughout the province for language and cultural programs.

The report sets out several goals to strengthen languages, including increasing the number of preschool language nests to 42 programs from the current eight over the next two to three years.

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