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Hanging On to Haida: Indian Linguist Shares Tools to Save a Language

SFU course in field linguistics helps Haida words live on.

Christopher Cheung 6 May 2016TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung is editorial assistant at The Tyee.

Learning a language can be hard, but it's even harder when there's almost no one left to learn it from. That was the challenge for Simon Fraser University visiting professor Anvita Abbi. She decided to teach a course on Haida, which she had no experience with before -- and almost no one to learn it from.

"When I came here, I realized there are hardly any [Haida] speakers left, except maybe two or three," she said.

Abbi came to SFU as a visiting scholar for the school's partnership with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. She's an expert on endangered languages in her home of India.

When asked to teach a course at SFU, she insisted on it being a field course. As someone with experience preserving languages, she took up the challenge of teaching students how to preserve Haida, one of B.C.'s endangered Indigenous languages.

Abbi knew it would be crucial to have a native Haida speaker around. The director of SFU's First Nations Language Centre, Marianne Ignace, found Haida elder Lawrence Bell, who assisted Abbi with the course.

Bell grew up with the language as a child and knows he's one of the last native Haida speakers in the world. However, he admits that even he has gaps in his knowledge. "All the fluent speakers are all gone!" he said.

It's a challenging reality of learning an endangered tongue. But as Abbi says, it means that everyone in her class is a young student once again.

Check out the full story at SFU's website here.  [Tyee]

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