Word associations

Elders work with linguists to revitalize Dene language, culture and identity

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:42:39 PM

Linguists have been sounding alarm bells about the decline of aboriginal languages for the past decade. Many of these languages are at risk of dying out within two generations. And with the loss of their ancestral languages looming, aboriginal communities are in danger of losing their cultural identity.

The First Nations community of Cold Lake, Alberta faces this threat. Since only 10 per cent of the residents—most of whom are elders—still speak the Dene language fluently, the community’s connection to thousands of years of traditional knowledge grows weaker every year.

With funding from SSHRC, Sally Rice, a linguistics professor at the University of Alberta, has brought together a team of researchers and community partners to revitalize the Dene language and renew the Dene culture in Cold Lake.

“Like a speeding train, the use of English as the primary means of communication has been gathering momentum for generations,” explains Rice. “It can’t be reversed completely, but this work can help create pride in the ability to speak Dene and knowledge of the community’s history.”

The first step has been to work with fluent speakers to document and analyze the primarily oral language. This hasn’t been an easy task—a Dene verb can contain as much information as a normal English sentence—but it is a vital part of preserving the language for future speakers.

“We’re also collecting texts and recording oral narratives to build a data base of Dene texts,” says Rice.

Since there are so many stories to put down on paper, both of recent and long-past events, the team has worked closely with elders to develop a standardized writing system.

“We’ve been trying to get elders themselves comfortable with using the printed word so they can start to write their own stories.”

The partners will soon launch a teacher-apprentice program, pairing youth from the community with elders so they can spend time together speaking Dene and sharing the community’s stories, songs and family histories.

Although their work focuses on Cold Lake, the team also supports Dene language education in other communities. Through a spin-off project, the Canadian Indigenous Language and Literacy Development Institute, it is giving First Nations speakers and educators a model for language revitalization work.

The Daghida Project was funded through SSHRC’s Community-University Research Alliances program.