Keep 'em talking.
That, to put it simply, was the goal of the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute, a three-week intensive summer school that recently wrapped up in La Ronge.
The idea behind CILLDI, as it's known, is that Aboriginal languages, many of which face extinction, must be preserved by the speakers themselves-those whose own identities are intertwined with those languages. Through university-level classes, the institute aims to give those speakers the skills they need to preserve and pass on their languages, whether that means teaching Cree to a 6-year-old, collecting the stories of a community's Dene Elders, or something else entirely.
CILLDI is a joint venture between the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan, and for the past three years, its goal has been to train Native language speakers and educators in First Nations languages, linguistics and curriculum development, and second language teaching methodologies. The first CILLDI was held on the Onion Lake First Nation in July 2000, the second in St. Paul, Alta. This summer, the program moved to La Ronge, where it was hosted by the Northern Teacher Education Program (NORTEP) from July 2 to 19.
Laura Burnouf, a NORTEP instructor, has attended all three of the summer institutes. She says that CILLDI has helped her refine her career goals, giving her a deeper awareness of how much her Cree language means to her and how important is to her that young people share that passion. As part of achieving that goal, Burnouf will be starting graduate studies at the University of Alberta this fall.
"The overall purpose for CILLDI is to pass on the message for revitalization, that in order for languages to survive, you can't teach (only the fundamentals like) grammar, you have to teach the living languages," Burnouf said. "We're never going to get the languages back if we just teach the words and the numbers . . .. It has to matter (to the learners)."
Every year, CILLDI draws on the expertise of language and education specialists from both Alberta and Saskatchewan. The program is headed up by Dr. Heather Blair, a professor from the U of A's department of elementary education, who was excited this year to see more graduate-level courses offered at CILLDI. Thanks to the Western Deans' Agreement, CILLDI courses can be applied toward a program of studies at any western Canadian university, opening up opportunities for people like Burnouf.
Blair is firmly committed to CILLDI's mandate, which she sees as extremely time-sensitive.
"The situation is very urgent," Blair said. Experts predict that that in 20 years, only three Aboriginal languages (Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut) will be left, and by the end of this century, most of the world's 6,000 languages will be extinct. Yet, those languages are the cup in which a culture's accumulated knowledge rests.
"If (the language) is lost, so is the access to that knowledge," Blair said.
"I'm here because I'm very concerned about the condition of the languages, because a lot of the youth don't speak the languages any more," said Leda Corrigal, a CILLDI student from Beauval who works as an Aboriginal material developer with the Northern Lights School Division."But we're trying to encourage parents, teachers and community members to appreciate and value the language."
"CILLDI is a support... for people who have been 'converted' to the cause of language preservation," added Dr. Sally Rice, a linguist whose specialty is Dene-a language now spoken by less than 2,000 people worldwide. "We teach a curriculum that is about identity, about being an Aboriginal person."