This week, Syilx Nation language students will celebrate graduation over Zoom. (Contributed)

This week, Syilx Nation language students will celebrate graduation over Zoom. (Contributed)

Despite challenges, Syilx Nation language students celebrate graduation

Students learning Nsyilxcn, a critically endangered Indigenous language, are celebrating graduation

The Nsyilxcn language will continue to be preserved, thanks to a dedicated group of Syilx Nation language students.

Despite not being able to attend class in person over the past few months, the students hunkered down, applied themselves and this week will graduate from their seven month course, over Zoom.

Nsyilxcn (Salish, Okanagan), the Nation explained, is a critically endangered language. There are fewer than 100 fluent speakers in the entire Syilx Nation, and many efforts are being made to revitalize the language. The Nation is a large territory stretching roughly from Revelstoke to Merritt, and from Arrow Lakes to Spokane.

The group of students, which started learning at the Westbank Youth Centre in Westbank First Nation in November, were faced with challenges when COVID-19 hit. However Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson, executive director of the Syilx Language House, explained that the switch from in-person classes to Zoom classes, was seamless.

“The switch to Zoom was seamless. Other than missing the potluck dinners, teachers found zooming was a great way to teach language to a small group and were amazed that students kept coming back every week.”

Students in the class are young and old; the oldest learner is 71 years old and the youngest is 24. Most of the students are Syilx, but two are non-Indigenous and learning out of interest in the local language of this territory.

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In early January, the group was finished the first book of Nsyilxcn curriculum, but decided to continue on and study the second. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the students were faced with the decision to quit or keep going, and decided to push on.

“Language became their medicine to carry them through the tough weeks and months of isolation,” said Johnson.

The organizers are proud of the dedication of the students, who they say went above and beyond to learn the language. Very few learners, they explained, finish the first book, let alone the second.

“We never planned to teach the second book, but the group wanted to keep going,” Johnson explained.

The oldest learner is 71 years old and the youngest, 24. Most of the students are Syilx, but two are non Indigenous and learning out of interest in the local language of this territory.

Organizers Səxʷt̓ums & Sʔímlaʔxʷ teaching class, back when they could still gather in person. (Contributed)

The class was organized by the Syilx Language House (SLH) and Ti Kwu Ti Xilx Indigenous Association (TKI), two not for profit organizations that focus on language in the Syilx Nation, in order to stem the reversal of language shift.

Together they provided training and child care for the teachers. They run a full-time adult fluency program in Westbank and a full time immersion nest for the toddlers of the staff. They also assist with fluency delivery and fluent Elder recordings in Penticton and Osoyoos. With all this going on, the staff and the learners will appreciate having their evenings back, after seven months of teaching five hours a week.

“It has been an honour to teach this group, it is always amazing hearing learners speak their first words and laugh and grow together as a group,” said Johnson.

Because the organizers are unable to provide a graduation ceremony due to COVID, they are celebrating the names of the learners below.

Səxʷt̓ums Krista Lindley organizer, teacher

St̓aʔqʷálqs Hailey Causton organizer, teacher

Sʔímlaʔxʷ Michele Johnson organizer, teacher

Stk̓masq̓t Skye Fay staff, learner

Spəplínaʔ Stephanie Alexis staff, learner

Skəkm̓xísaʔt Sofia Terbasket Funmaker staff, learner

Swʕaʔ Kylie Jack staff, learner

Sm̓x̌ikn̓ Sharon Jack learner

Stm̓ilxʷ Ernest Jack learner

Stxət̓am̓ Kim Kosik learner

Səxʷkn̓xłtiłn̓ Llana Teichroeb learner

N̓kʷskʷsčin̓ Mike Doyel learner

Sk̓ʷk̓ʷiłp Grant Aiton learner

Stsaqʷm̓ Rosalyn Wilson learner

X̌ʷnam̓x̌ʷnam̓ Shirlie Delacherois learner

If you would like to know more about the language journey, follow them on their website, Thelanguagehouse.ca, and on Facebook @syilxlanguagehouse to hear about future classes.

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