I’m not learning a second language, I’m learning my language: Being Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw and learning Kwak’wala

Rosborough, Trish
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“My journey with Kwak’wala is so different from my failed attempts to learn Spanish. I am not learning a second language; I am learning my language. It is not uncommon to hear Indigenous people say, “I don’t know my language”; yet not being able to understand or speak our languages does not mean that these languages are any less ours.” (author, 2012, p. 181) Kwak’wala, the language of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people in British Columbia, Canada, is considered endangered. For Indigenous peoples in colonizing societies, language revitalization is a complex endeavour. Within the fields of language revitalization and Indigenous studies, the practices and policies of colonization have been identified as key factors in Indigenous language decline. This paper draws on the author’s doctoral study that was conducted through a Ḵ̓a̱ngex̱tola framework, an Indigenous methodology based on the metaphor of creating a button blanket, the ceremonial regalia of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw. The research has built understanding through the author’s experience as a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw person learning Kwak’wala through the use of various approaches to language learning, including two years with the Master-Apprentice approach. The research employs the researcher’s journals and personal stories, as well as interviews with individuals who are engaged in Kwak’wala revitalization. The study identifies the need for Kwak’wala revitalization efforts to employ multifaceted approaches that take into account the impacts of colonization. Learning or recovering one’s mother tongue is not akin to learning a second or foreign language. Working to recover Kwak’wala involves deep personal, interpersonal, and social processes and an untangling of messages carried at a profound level. Encouragement, safe environments and relationships for language work through explicit agreements and commitment, are identified as important supports for Kwak’wala learning and speaking. Further, it is important to sustain the spirit of the language by maintaining the literal and symbolic meanings and constructs of Kwak’wala that are important in the transmission and maintenance of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture. This research has led to an understanding of the necessity for Indigenous language revitalization efforts to give consideration to what it means for community members to learn and speak their own languages.
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