Bringing back Halq’eméylem from the brink of extinction

This story is the second in our ongoing series about Halq’eméylem and the people working to save it. Find the others here:

Halq’eméylem is a severely endangered language and has been for decades. But despite the near-extinction of the language, new speakers are helping it stage a comeback.

In 2010, a report by the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language, and Culture Council noted that only 5% of all Indigenous people in BC are fluent in their own language, and only 8% are considered “semi-speakers,” or ones who can speak part of their language.

The decimation of Indigenous languages like Halq’eméylem was done intentionally and systematically. Students were often taken to residential schools great distances from their homes and forbidden from speaking their mother tongue, forcing the use of English. (At the Coqualeetza Residential School in Chilliwack, for example, students came from more than three dozen different Indigenous communities.)

Now, the Halq’eméylem language is growing in the valley, after years of decline.

Halq’eméylem is the upriver dialect of Halkomelem, the language spoken by Coast Salish communities from Vancouver Island to Yale. (Halkomelem itself is part of the Salishan family of languages, which you can learn more about here.)

Today, communities continue to see the intergenerational effects of being deprived of their language. But, in the last decade, the number of people speaking Indigenous languages has dramatically increased.

In 2011—the first year Halkomelem was listed as its own language in the census—just 55 people spoke Halkomelem as their primary language at home. Half of those people were over the age of 55. (Only a handful were children under the age of 10.)

In 2021, the census recorded only 45 people in BC who spoke Halkomelem as their primary language at home, and the Fraser Valley has only one fully fluent speaker of Halq’eméylem—Siyamiyateliyot Elizabeth Phillips.

But that doesn’t mean the language is dying.

In BC, 180 people listed Halkomelem as their mother tongue. And in the Fraser Valley, there are 200 people who know Halkomelem, up from 115 in 2016.

This may be in part due to the growth of opportunities for people to both learn and teach Halq’eméylem and other Indigenous languages—and of the growing interest in those languages. The University of the Fraser Valley has had teacher’s programs for years, and recently launched a graduate certificate in Halq’eméylem teaching. (The Current will have a story on that in a future edition.)

Halq’eméylem words are also being used outside of just Indigenous communities. In Chilliwack and Abbotsford, new elementary schools have been given Halq’eméylem names. Halq’eméylem is also now being used in community welcome signs and other public spaces.

In an effort to help more people become familiar with Halq’eméylem, The Current is also launching a new ongoing language learning series.

With the assistance of Halq’eméylem speakers like Siyamiyateliyot and and the University of the Fraser Valley, we will explore different Halq’eméylem words, phrases, and stories. (You can read our earlier story on Siyamiyateliyot and how she worked to save Halq’eméylem from extinction here.) This series will include both the spelling and an easy-to-use audio pronunciation of the words.

The first in the series will launch in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can check out other language learning resources through the First Voices initiative, Stó:lō Shxwelí, or on individual nations’ websites like Sq’éwlets.

You can find our previous stories on Halq’eméylem below:

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