Michele Johnson, (left) executive director of The Syilx Language House, directs others in a language game at UBCO Friday during the Celebrating Salish Northern Conference. - Carli Berry/Capital News

‘It needs to be part of our jobs,’ conference highlights time spent on learning Indigenous language

The first Celebrating Salish Northern Conference was held Friday at UBCO.

Participants had a fun time learning a few words of nsyilxcən during a language conference at UBC Okanagan.

Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson, executive director of The Syilx Language House, highlighted the success of the eight students, herself included, who tackled the challenge of becoming fluent in nsyilxcən, the traditional language of the Syilx peoples, during the first Celebrating Salish, Northern Conference on April 12. The conference is modelled after a similar one held in Spokane.

READ MORE: Kelowna Indigenous language conference to highlight importance of fluency programs

Over the last four years, the students have spent more than 1,000 hours learning the language.

Johnson had conference participants laughing and smiling as they conducted a language recognition game to learn the names for horse, laughter and dance in nsyilxcən.

“We deliver about 200 hours a year, we meet for two days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for four years,” Johnson said.

“In the beginning, we went to the chief and councils of Westbank, PIB, OKIB, and said give me four of your best people for four years and I’ll give you 12 new fluent speakers,” she addressed a crowd of 60 people. “Those who are still remaining have been supported from the get-go.”

READ MORE: Sylix Language House celebrates third year

“This is the takeaway message from the program. To be fully supported really helps. Teaching and learning language in the evenings and weekends, we can’t do this anymore, our language is precious. We need to be fully supported, it needs to be part of our jobs,” she said.

That was the strength of the program, she said, allowing people to take the time to learn nsyilxcən, which is considered to be critically endangered. Those trained in this cohort can now go on to train others, and the Syilx Language House will start again in the fall with a new cohort.

Speakers at the conference also included Grahm Wiley-Camacho and Chris Parkin, from the Salish School of Spokane, as well as others from beyond the Okanagan Valley.

To learn more about the language house visit http://www.thelanguagehouse.ca/.

READ MORE: Critically endangered language being brought back to life


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