Image credit: Enduring Voices Project
Finnish was my first language. I was five years old when my family emigrated to Canada. Arriving in Winnipeg, I was promptly placed in school, not knowing a word of English. Now that was language immersion! I don’t remember much of those early scary days. I was already reading Finnish and we continued to speak Finnish at home. I learned English quickly enough as children do, but my parents’ English was never perfect. LIke many working class immigrants, they were too busy working hard to survive to take more than a couple of basic language classes. Some immigrant parents, wishing to learn English through their children, did not allow their native languages to be spoken so some of my friends lost most of their mother tongue. I’m sure this was typical of many immigrant experiences in North America and other parts. These days, I’m sad that my Finnish is not a strong as English from lack of everyday practice since my parents are no longer with us.
Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed strong feelings about language being part of a person’s identity and connection with his or her roots and culture. So whenever I read about how many languages are dying around the world, I feel sorrow at the world’s loss of so many cultures.
Yesterday’s Vancouver Sun has one such story, B.C.’s native languages rapidly dying: linguists
Indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate in British Columbia, prompting linguists to include the province on a list of the five worst global “hot spots” for language extinction. Most fluent aboriginal speakers are aged 60 or older, and their languages will be lost forever when the last speaker dies, said David Harrison, co-director of the Enduring Voices project, which seeks to document and revitalize languages slipping towards oblivion.
Much of the blame for language loss can be tied to residential schools, UBC linguistics Prof. Suzanne Gessner said. For decades, children were taken away from their families during the school year and educated in English. A compensation package designed to address the wrongs of residential schools did nothing to revitalize languages, she said — and last November, the federal government cut $160 million in funding for aboriginal languages.