“Thanks to my FLAS fellowship, I was able to spend much of my summer studying Nuuchahnulth, an indigenous language spoken along most of the central west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Nuuchahnulth belongs to the Wakashan family, and is part of the large set of diverse languages in the Pacific Northwest. I had been studying the language on my own for about a year prior to obtaining the FLAS, which gave me the time and external support to study the language more intensively over the summer.
The Nuuchahnulth communities have had their culture and language eroded under assimilationist policies of the Canadian government, starting with the colonization of British Columbia and especially intensified under the residential school system. However, communities are invested in working to preserve and pass on their heritage. This is a difficult task, particularly for the language, since all fluent speakers belong to the older generation. I have been fortunate to meet people involved in this challenging but encouraging work.
Finding formal language classes for Native American languages can be difficult, and Nuuchahnulth is no exception. I was taught through Adam Werle, a linguist affiliated with the University of Victoria who knows the language and teaches occasional classes on it through the University of Victoria, in addition to direct work with the community. I have also attended language circle meetings in Port Alberni (c̓uumaʕas) with Adam, Nuuchahnulth learners, and fluent Nuuchahnulth elders. The FLAS helped fund me to attend a week-long intensive course on the island, which included grammar and vocabulary lessons, free dialog practice, and giving speeches. At the end I received an evaluation of my skills by elders. I also was able to spend several days on a reserve, speaking to and recording information from elders. I was able to learn new information about the dialect features of people on this reserve, confirm some things about the syntax of the language, as well as get practice listening to fluent native speakers speaking at length. The rest of my time was spent with Adam Werle reviewing texts, practicing speaking, and learning more about the grammar of the language.
Hot Springs Cove, British Columbia
Getting to spend some time on a reserve and see the traditional land was very helpful to my understanding of the language and culture. For instance, Nuuchahnulth has many ways of expressing location, and the most common outdoor locations are: on the water, in the forest, and on the beach. Sometimes these locations have interpretations that are non-obvious to a Westerner from the cities and suburbs, like me. When I traveled to a reserve, I understood a little bit better the traditional method of travel across the ocean: Nuuchahnulth communities were and are connected to each other by water, which is easier to travel on than the mountains of Vancouver Island, and the sea provides most of the traditional food supply. The coast is often rocky and densely wooded, and good beaches are rare and valuable places for a village, for camping or for a base for hunting. Each community opens onto a beach, from which there is easy access to the water for travel. Seeing the land, meeting people and talking about landmarks, travel, and traditional activities, helped me understand the language better, and its connection to culture and life.
I am a PhD student in linguistics, and my dissertation will be on Nuuchahnulth, which is an interesting language for many reasons. For instance, what is a sentence in English can easily be a single word in Nuuchahnulth. To ask “Do you have a canoe?” in Nuuchahnulth, you simply say č̓apacnakḥak. The word ordering can also be quite different from English, the technical details of which are a particular area of interest for me. My summer studies through the FLAS have helped me both with my fluency and in my research. I also got to spend time meeting new people from the community, and learning from those who are working to preserve their language and heritage. I hope that my knowledge and work will be helpful to the community as well, and am grateful to those who have taught me. ʕatiqšiʔaƛaḥ ʔuukʷił quuʔassa, ʔeʔiič̓im ʔani huuḥtakšiiḥ siy̓a.”
FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.