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  • "We Can't Feel Our Language":Making Places in the City for Aboriginal Language Revitalization
  • Natalie J. K. Baloy (bio)

The Squamish teens . . . show an appreciation of their culture. It may not be to the same level or depth as their elders, but it may help to ensure that it lives on, even if in a different form. They have all heard their traditional language spoken at story-tellings, and at gatherings and funerals. Even though they don't understand it, they enjoy hearing it. "It sounds better," says Ralphie, "it's a lot more pretty than English."

Belinda, growing up in urban Port Alberni, is one teen who feels a strong and deep connection to both her language and culture. Yet she still faces numerous stumbling blocks in her quest to learn more about it. . . . "I want to learn more prayers. When we go to workshops, I want to hear the prayers from beginning to end. If I knew the prayers, I would say them. I told my grampa that, so he's been teaching me, taking me out on the road, and now I'm learning about medicinal plants and foods." Belinda recognizes that there are teachings associated with her people's songs and dances. "I want to understand what they mean, so I go and ask my grampa. I don't want to sing without knowing what it means."

Native language revitalization efforts are overwhelmingly located in rural environments, despite the fact that aboriginal people are increasingly choosing to live and raise families in urban settings.1 This profoundly affects aboriginal people living in cities, many of whom, like the Squamish and Port Alberni teens quoted above, are anxious to learn, speak, hear, see, and feel their languages. This article explores possibilities for extending aboriginal language education opportunities into the urban domain based on qualitative research in Vancouver, British Columbia. I [End Page 515] argue that aboriginal language revitalization efforts have a place in the city, as demonstrated by emerging language ideologies of urban aboriginal people expressed in interviews for this study.

I identify three central challenges facing language workers and learners. I suggest possible ways to address these issues through urban language revitalization projects. First, language workers and learners must work against the sometimes subtle but pervasive idea that a strong aboriginal identity and an urban lifestyle are mutually exclusive.2 Many people acknowledge that urban aboriginal people can and do maintain strong connections to their heritage and homelands; however, language revitalization projects are located primarily on reserves, perpetuating a divide between language and the city. I present several approaches to reconceptualizing urban aboriginal identity that can support urban-based language initiatives.

Second, language workers must consider how to address linguistic and cultural diversity among urban aboriginal people through language projects. Research participants suggested that attention to the local languages ought to be the first step, particularly for public use of language. Participants emphasized important links between land, language, and identity. Acknowledgment of local peoples, their lands, and their languages offers a starting point for addressing diverse language needs in the city. I call this step "placing language."

Third, language workers and learners must identify how ties between land, language, and identity can be fostered and nurtured in urban spaces not only for local peoples but also for those who have moved to the city from elsewhere. For nonlocal urban aboriginal peoples, connections with homelands can be strengthened through enhanced access to language and culture.3 I suggest several approaches for "making places" for language and culture in the city. Including the urban dimension in language revitalization efforts is of pressing importance as languages continue to lose speakers and aboriginal people continue to dwell in urban spaces.4 Through recognition and promotion of connections between land, language, and identity, language workers and learners can make places for aboriginal language education in the city.

Talking About Language: Language Ideologies

Linguistic anthropologists and other scholars have recognized the sociocultural implications of language and examined its social functions. [End Page 516] The study of "language ideology" has emerged as a "mediating link between social structures and forms of talk."5 Language ideology refers to the social connections people make...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1828
Print ISSN
0095-182X
Pages
pp. 515-548
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-16
Open Access
No
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