I must declare my lack of impartiality in this subject as I was lucky enough to attend the programme myself this summer.
CILLDI, as the websites says, “pronounced ‘sill-dee’”, stands for the Canadian Indigenous Language and Literacy Development Institute. It is an annual intensive summer school programme at the University of Alberta. It generally takes place in July, and it runs for three weeks. The goal of the programme is to revitalize Canada’s indigenous languages through education.
CILLDI began in the year 2000, and it has grown with each year. It aims to empower First Nations peoples to take revitalization, documentation, and general awareness of their languages and cultures into their own hands. A look at the student body for each year will show that it is not an academics-only programme, and that the organizers strive each year to bring people from diverse backgrounds to the University to attend the classes, and to gain the knowledge they can then use in their own communities. CILLDI supports students from myriad backgrounds through bursaries that support community-based initiatives.
The emphasis of each of the classes taught (there were ten classes taught in 2014) is on practical knowledge, and how to enable the students to go back to their communities and have a practical impact. The professors come from many backgrounds, some are linguists at the University of Alberta studying technologies to support language revitalization, another was from Hawaii who had helped build an Alaskan language archive, and another was a Cree language instructor. The goals of all the courses is to empower the students to become activists for their communities, and their languages, so that they can lead revitalization and documentation efforts. Just a sample of the classes taught this July were: Community language archiving, language policy and planning, building a community dictionary, and technologies for indigenous language documentation. Community language archiving taught students how to use online database and archive websites to manage their community’s heritage, cultural artefacts, and language through recordings of songs, poems, and conversations. Language policy and planning encouraged students to write mock proposals for actual grants, so they could see each step involved in gaining funding for language projects in their home communities. The course on building a community dictionary taught the process from the practical questions of how many speakers are remaining, how to get the most words in the least amount of time, and what kind of dictionary would be best suited to the needs of the community in question. For example, one student stated that in her community in the Northwest Territories, the Tłı̨chǫ elders would need a medical dictionary in order to better understand their ailments and diagnoses, and to better explain them to their doctors. Finally the course on technologies took students through hands-on practice with recording equipment, and the use of technologies to get the best results from those recordings.
However, the real magic of the programme is outside the classroom. With 58 students in 2014, there were over a dozen languages represented from Saami to Gwich’in to Mitchif. The discussions that took place in the lunchroom and dining halls, and the comradery among the students allowed for a deeper understanding of two enormous truths:
- Indigenous languages are severely threatened across this country, and indeed the world.
- There are sincere and passionate people who are willing to take up arms against this threat, and see that their languages are documented and protected for generations to come.
There is often a discussion among language revitalization researchers on the necessity of bridging the gap between academics and the affected community. The point is strongly made that it is essential that the language’s speakers be a large part of any revitalization or documentation effort. The sentiment being that the people at the centre of the project will know their own needs best. The CILLDI programme bridges that gap in an extraordinary way. Some languages are unquestionably threatened, but programmes like CILLDI put power into the hands of those languages’ speakers. A language that has speakers who are educated in language documentation and revitalization practices—from grants to recordings to archiving—has a strong chance of surviving the alarming rate of language loss of which we are now witness.
If you would like to know more about CILLDI please follow the link below.
Take care eh,
– Michael Iannozzi, and the Canadian Language Museum team
(If you have any ideas for topics of future posts please email firstname.lastname@example.org)