Jordan Coble of the Westbank First Nation and Levi Bent of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band did a joint presentation in nsyilxcən at the Syilx Language House’s celebration of their third year last April. Steve Kidd/Western News

Okanagan Indigenous language conference to highlight importance of fluency programs

The Celebrating Salish Northern Conference will be held Friday at UBCO in Kelowna

A Kelowna language conference is highlighting the efforts Indigenous communities are making to save endangered languages.

The first Celebrating Salish Northern Conference, to be held Friday at UBC Okanagan, is modelled after a similar conference held in Spokane, said Michele Johnson, executive director of the Syilx Language House.

For the last four years, Johnson has spearheaded a program that teaches students Nsyilxcən, the traditional language of the Syilx peoples as part of the Syilx Language House project.

READ MORE: Critically endangered language being brought back to life

“Our assessments are coming through at mid-intermediate to low-advanced, which is phenomenal for this program,” she said.

“We’ve experienced a personal transportation on spiritual, emotional, mental and physical levels, because this language is affecting us. Being deeply connected to our stories is affecting us and the sheer amount of hard work that it’s taken for us to get to the point where we could put in four years and accomplish four years, that’s made us so much stronger as individuals and as a team,” she said.

“We’re excited to grow that family and share that experience with more people next year.”

Eight people will be completing the language house’s program this year.

READ MORE: Sylix Language House celebrates third year

The Nsyilxcən language’s sentence structure, as well as punctuation, is incredibly complex, she said.

“English has become a very simplified language, so it’s not a very representative language to learn from,” she said.

“It’s important learn our language because this is who we are… for us in the program, it’s not a question we ask ourselves ‘why do we do this?’ We just know this is our role and responsibility as Syilx people and it’s very enriching. We know learning the language is an integral part of the health of our communities and the health of our communities includes de-colonizing practices, getting in touch with our land and being able to address our title and rights in our language.”

Johnson said roughly 60 people are planning to attend the conference, and hopes to highlight the successes of the resurgence of traditional languages across North America.

“(At the conference in Spokane) they said when they started they had 12 people, and now they have 500 people,” she said.

The conference will be held April 12 from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in room 200 of the UNC Building. Johnson will present her “1,000+ Hours of Fluency – A Look into the Syilx Language House” at 1 p.m.

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