News / Vancouver

Ultrasound used to document last fluent speaker of Fraser Valley aboriginal language

Language revitalization plays big role in new Stó:lō Nation curriculum

Dianna Kay, a language curriculum developer, speaks to students at Seabird Island Community School, near Chilliwack, B.C. in November 2014.

Kristy Johnson/Contributed

Dianna Kay, a language curriculum developer, speaks to students at Seabird Island Community School, near Chilliwack, B.C. in November 2014.

There is only one fluent speaker of the language Upriver Halq'eméylem left in the world but students in the Stó:lō Nation in B.C.’s Fraser Valley will soon be able to see exactly how she pronounces the once almost-lost words.

Educators in the Seabird Island Band are putting greater emphasis on language revitalization in a new curriculum that is being developed for the 2017/18 school year. They have documented the language through ultrasound, using the same technique instructors in UBC’s Cantonese program are piloting with their students this summer.

The technique allows students to see how the mouth’s muscles move when pronouncing certain sounds – a valuable resource when there is only one person left in the world who speaks the language.

“I always tell our children and our students that language is the voice of our people,” said Dianna Kay, a language curriculum developer at Seabird Island Community School.

“Our language holds the culture, it holds the heart, it holds the being of our Stó:lō people.”

In April, UBC lecturer and linguist Strang Burton recorded Elizabeth Phillips speaking her native tongue both on film and as an ultrasound recording, enabling students to see how the muscles move inside the mouth for certain sounds.

He is working with the Stó:lō community to create an ebook using the video clips.

Kay plans to incorporate the ebook in a new curriculum and is hopeful it will encourage more students to continue learning the language after they graduate.

 “I always like to say we plant 200 seeds a year, every year, and from there it’s the decisions of the person if they want to push through with the language.”

Learning their grandparents’ mother tongue is part of the healing process for the community, said Kay.

“There was a time when our people were silenced and weren’t allowed to speak our language at all. People who preserved it – they were taking a physical risk to save it,” she said, referring to decades of residential schools where students were forced to speak only English.  

“As the language grows…we’re able to spend more time healing too,” said Kay.

More on Metronews.ca