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Language campaign
Call for Weledeh to be given official status so funding will follow

Danielle Sachs
Northern News Services
Published Friday, June 22, 2012

There's a movement to have Weledeh recognized as its own separate language, but not everyone agrees it needs official language status.

NNSL photo/graphic

Shaylene Shae, 7, learns about the properties of rat root from Gina MacLean, a Tlicho language instructor. - Danielle Sachs/NNSL photo

"It's a combination of Tlicho and Chipewyan," says Bob Bromley, MLA for Weledeh.

"Over time, it's become almost a dialect of its own, drawing on influences from both."

Bromley says it's important to share the language with younger generations and to make sure it's Weledeh they are learning.

"The kids are coming home and speaking to their parents and speaking what is not their language," he says.

Gina MacLean has been teaching the Tlicho language at Weledeh Catholic School for eight years and doesn't think Weledeh will get official language status. But she understands why it's wanted.

"Language is part of your identity," says MacLean. "It's a big part of your culture and history, people want that recognized."

Neither Bromley nor MacLean know how many people speak Weledeh.

MacLean says although dialects differ across the region, she can still communicate with others. "There are small differences," she says.

"We call snow 'shaa' but in Behchoko it's 'za.'"

Volunteers hold after-school programs in Weledeh, which Bromley says have been very successful and have generated a lot of interest.

But without official language status, funding is hard to come by.

"They compete with Chipewyan and Tlicho centres," says Bromley.

"The question is what can we do to make sure there's some mechanism to ensure they have funding.

What funding does come through is often too late to do any long-term planning, and money has to be spent quickly."

And it's not specifically Weledeh resources that are hard to come by.

MacLean says that she works alone as a Tlicho language instructor, without the help of other Tlicho instructors.

"It's frustrating there aren't any resources," she says.

MacLean prepares a lot of her own teaching materials, such as writing out the alphabet and preparing flashcards for the classroom.

There used to be a language resource centre here but now there's nothing in the Yellowknife region, she says.

On the eve of National Aboriginal Day, MacLean explains the importance of younger generations learning their language.

She says a lot of knowledge is passed through generations orally and, without knowing the language, more than just words will be lost.

"We're losing the language and young people are struggling, they can't really communicate with adults or elders," says MacLean.

"I don't know why young people aren't learning the language."

MacLean recently participated in a conference in Kamloops, B.C., where she saw firsthand that aboriginal languages across Canada are suffering.

"It's not only here that has problems," she says. "All over Canada people are losing their language and we need to do something to preserve it."

She says a lot of it has to do with access to English media, like music, movies and television. "You need to know English or French to get a job and our languages suffer as a result."

While MacLean doesn't know what exactly would work, she stresses the importance of speaking the language as much as possible.

MacLean says the aboriginal people in Arizona have a lot of good programs, with language classes running into post-secondary education.

"It's an Athabasca language like ours and they have a lot of programs," she says.

Countries like China, Japan and the Philippines successfully conduct business around the world while preserving their native tongues, and it should be no different in the North, says MacLean.

"Maybe we need to get advice from those other countries."

Bromley acknowledges that it would be an involved process to get official language status for Weledeh.

"An academic linguist would have to examine and see what stage they're in," he says. "It might even take a change to the federal official languages act."

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