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“What do you know about any of the Indigenous languages spoken on the Island?” Reflections from a university classroom


By Shiva Nourpanah , Saint Mary’s University and Chantelle Spicer, Vancouver Island University

“Do you know how many Indigenous languages are currently (barely) alive in the province of British Columbia?” Chantelle, an Anthropology major at Vancouver Island University, challenged her fellow students and professor during one of their “Language and Culture” classes taught by Shiva during fall 2017. Nobody in class knew of the diversity of the Indigenous languages, comprised of many dialects within the 30 main language families, that exists in BC. The province is home to 203 First Nations communities and an equally diverse array of Indigenous languages –approximately 60% of the First Nations languages of Canada are spoken in BC (First Peoples’ Heritage, 2008).

This reflection rises out of the experiences of Shiva and Chantelle from the course “Language and Culture”: Shiva is a first-generation immigrant born in Iran, raised in the UK; Chantelle is of Jewish-Moroccan descent, raised on the traditional territory of the Ponca Nation of Nebraska, and resident of Coast Salish territory for 8 years. Approaching from these social locations, both women are intensely interested in the policies and practices of multilingualism unfolding in Canadian classrooms.


As Shiva and Chantelle raced through the course, they read about politics and power expressed via languages taught and un-taught in the classroom. They learned about Hispanics banned from speaking Spanish in American classrooms (Garcia and Mason, 2009); Hopi elders demanding that anthropologists let their language die (Whitely, 2003); Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils arguing over the “correct” heritage language to be taught to their children in Quebec (Das, 2011); African villagers switching between four languages as they moved throughout the day from home, to school, to the market, to an office, to their grandparents’ home (Batibo, 2005). These are the politics of the powerful and the marginalized, chattering and echoing through classrooms.

Human beings have remarkable linguistic capacity. Shiva described to her students how, in Iran, the further you travelled from Tehran, the more amazing variety of local speech, dialects, and full languages you encountered, with two villages barely five kilometres apart having distinctly different speech. This was also recognized by Chantelle from her experience of the Eastern Vancouver Island Coast Salish territory, whose main language family of Hul’qui’minum contains multiple distinct dialects in communities barely a 20-minute drive from each other. Until the “cultural juggernaut” of Westernized culture (Trouillot, 2001) using the medium of the English language began to bulldoze the world, we have often knocked around in more than one language, picking up words, phrases, and even whole corpora of literature as we moved about, developed kinship networks, trading routes, and making love and war.

Inuit stop sign
Stop sign in downtown Iqaluit, in 3 languages (English, French & Inuktitut). All photos by Chantelle Spicer.


But today, students not only have no idea about our rich linguistic heritages, there seems no desire to become aware, even. No one is telling English-speaking students to learn a multitude of Indigenous languages – obviously! However, students should become aware and educated about the existence of languages other than English, creating possibilities to communicate and describe our environment and relationships, seeing whole new worldviews. The education system, a reflection of the values of mainstream society, is failing our children and young adults. Children in mainstream, English-based public education systems are growing up determinedly monolingual. Not only do they not learn any other language with a modicum of efficiency or functionality, they resist the mere idea of having to learn another language. Despite the discourse on multilingualism and multiculturalism, the hegemony of the English language is alive and kicking in our classrooms, as well as mainstream society. So, how do we, as members of that society make the written policy matter in the lived world?


Reference List

Batibo, H. (2005). Language decline and death in Africa: Causes, consequences, and challenges. Clevedon; Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.

Das, S. N. (2011). Rewriting the past and reimagining the future: The social life of a Tamil heritage language industry. American Ethnologist, 38(4), 774-789.

Garcia, O. and Mason, L. (2009). Where in the World is US Spanish? Creating a Space of Opportunity for US Latinos. In Harbert, W., McConnell-Ginet, S., Miller, & Whitman, J. (Eds). Language and poverty. Bristol, UK ; Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.

First Peoples’ Heritage (2008). First People’s Language Map: British Columbia. Retrieved from:

Trouillot, M. (2001). The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization. Current Anthropology, 42(1), 125-138.

Whiteley, P. (2003). Do “Language Rights” Serve Indigenous Interests? Some Hopi and Other Queries. American Anthropologist, 105(4), 712-722.

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