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Is it Possible to Preserve Traditional Languages?

According to an estimate by the United Nations, the world loses one Indigenous language every two weeks. Almost all of the 60 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada are critically endangered, including Sm'algyax. It sounds bleak, but language revitalization efforts provide optimism that this part of culture can continue.

How do Languages Become Extinct?

The short answer is that languages die out when people stop using them, often because they start using another language more. This is one of those changes that happens gradually. Generations go from speaking the traditional language fluently to becoming bilingual to losing proficiency in the traditional language. 

This often happens when a community interacts with others who speak a different language, and they're pressured or forced to learn a new language. The younger generations begin to use the new language as their primary language, and their ability to speak their traditional language diminishes—if they learn it at all. 

As older speakers pass away and fewer children learn the language, it slowly disappears. When a language goes extinct, communities lose a part of their culture and history that can't be replaced.

Creative Revitalization Efforts in Northern Saskatchewan 

Cree is one of the dying languages in the country. To revitalize it, the president of Powwow Times, Patrick Mitsuing, invited an American YouTuber to the Loon Lake community.

Arieh Smith speaks about 50 languages and has a channel with over six million followers. He was invited to the community to learn the Cree language, promote it, and experience the area's culture. Elders were astounded when this visitor spoke to them in their traditional language (watch the video). With such reach online, Smith is able to show people that if he can learn Cree, younger members can, too.

Reaching Younger Generations

The key to revitalizing language is to get younger people interested in learning. You have to meet them where they are, such as on platforms like YouTube and TikTok—which is exactly what Mitsuing did by inviting Smith to the community. 

Another benefit of video content is that it captures the language, so future generations can learn from those who speak the traditional language.

Sm'algyax Revitalization Efforts

The Sm'algyax Word of the Day app/website, developed by Brendan Eshom, is an excellent place to start. When his school schedule couldn't accommodate this language class, he took it upon himself to create a resource for anyone who wanted to learn the language.

You can also find YouTube videos online to learn some language basics. The University of Northern British Columbia also offers language classes in the Tsimshian language. The Ts'msyen Sm'algyax Language Authority website has resources, videos, audio files, grammar, and more.  

In community, there are volunteer-run language classes. If you are interested in learning the Tsimshian language, get in touch with the office to express your interest.

Are You Learning or Teaching Sm'algyax?

Traditional language is part of culture, and it's important to keep it going. If you have any engaging learning resources or an inviting approach to teaching Sm'algyax, please share them with the community.

Let's work together to keep the Tsimshian language going for future generations. 


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