Keeping Coast Salish languages strong


- Stephanie Harrington

Agnes Violet Sharon Seymour practices her pronunciation using ultrasound technology with her son, Luke, and UVic linguist Sonya Bird. Photo: UVic Photo Services

Technology plays an important role in helping Hul'q'umi'num' learners improve their fluency

Agnes Violet Sharon Seymour’s desire to learn Hul'q'umi'num' stretches back to when she was a girl, listening to her father and uncle talk in the Coast Salish language.

"I wanted to be able to communicate and understand them," she says.

Seymour wants that same generational bond for her son, Luke Jarrett Spaal' Seymour, who is learning Hul'q'umi'num' at school. Seymour, from Kwa'mutsun, a member of Quw'utsun' tribe, is among seven students gathered at the Shhwulmuhwqun Language House in Duncan this morning for a science of speech class. By day’s end, Seymour, whose Hul'q'umi'num' name is Ts'i'y'a lhaat, will have had the chance to use ultrasound, acoustic speech analysis and palatography to hone her pronunciation.

University of Victoria professor Sonya Bird leads a team of linguists using these technologies to help Hul'q'umi'num' learners like Seymour improve their fluency in one of the most complex languages in the world. Bird says Hul'q'umi'num' has 37 consonants, 24 of which don’t occur in English, making authentic pronunciation difficult for second-language learners.

University and community-based partners, including Hul'q'umi'num' Language and Culture Society and Simon Fraser University, are involved in the project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. They are working against time to transmit knowledge of Hul'q'umi'num' to younger generations. Few first-language speaking Elders remain.

Our research is showing us what features of Hul'q'umi'num' pronunciation are most challenging for learners, and how best to overcome these challenges. Our project meets an urgent need for resources to support language revitalization efforts.
UVic linguist Sonya Bird

After students finish listening practice with Kwa’mutsun Elder Ruby Peter, known by her Coast Salish name Sti’tum’at, they shift into smaller groups to use the technology. At one station, Bird presses an ultrasound wand underneath Peter’s chin so that an image of her tongue appears on a large monitor. She slowly pronounces difficult words, such as hwyuxwut, which means “open it” in English.

UVic PhD student Tess Nolan, who will write their dissertation based on their research here, manages the equipment while Bird points out the different ways Peter’s tongue moves on screen to help students better articulate sounds.

Elsewhere, students wear headphones and compare the acoustic waves they made saying certain Hul'q'umi'num' words against the recorded pronunciation of Elders. Next, Nolan offers to paint the tongues of willing students in charcoal. The practice, called palatography, reveals where the tongue presses against the palate, another way to “see” the pronunciation of tricky sounds. Seymour tries it, and a fellow student takes a photo of the inside of her mouth reflected on a mirror, preserving the record for later comparisons.

Shhwulmuhwqun founder Sally Hart says UVic researchers are helping blend new and traditional ways of learning. Every effort counts.

If we don’t have the language, we won’t understand the depth and meaning of our culture and traditional ways.
Shhwulmuhwqun founder Sally Hart

Bird says students are aware they have limited time to learn from Elders, and that the responsibility of carrying the language forward has fallen on them.

It is for this reason that, when Seymour’s son returns home from school, they speak to each other in Hul'q'umi'num'. “My goal is to keep our Hul'q'umi'num' strong,” she says.

UVic professor Sonya Bird is using technology, such as ultrasound, to help Hul'q'umi'num' learners improve their fluency.


BC is home to more than half of the about 60 Indigenous languages in Canada. And Indigenous communities are working hard to ensure the survival of their ancestral voices.

March 31 marks National Indigenous Languages Day. Bird says it’s a time to celebrate the incredible diversity of languages and cultures in the land we now call Canada, while supporting the efforts of Indigenous communities to reclaim and revitalize them.

The research team for the pronunciation project reaches beyond traditional academic boundaries to include linguists from SFU, UVic and the University of Toronto, as well as Elders and teachers, who are the language experts, and learners, who are experts in the experience of learning their ancestral language.

Students attending the class at Shhwulmuhwqun Language House are enrolled in bachelor and master’s studies at SFU. SFU linguist Donna Gerdts says the students have greatly improved their knowledge of Hul’q’umi’num’ sounds through the UVic partnership.

Rae Anne Claxton Baker, an SFU master’s student and member of Tsawout First Nation, is considering starting a PhD at UVic in the fall as she prepares for a career in language revitalization. She is a research assistant for the pronunciation project.

Bird says Indigenous language revitalization work is a team effort.

"Partnerships like this one allow us to move the work forward in incredibly positive ways.”


In this story

Keywords: languages and linguistics, research

People: Sonya Bird

Publication: knowlEDGE

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