First Cohort Graduates from UBCO’s Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency Program

June 2, 2023

UBC Okanagan’s Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program, which launched in 2021, will watch its first cohort of students graduate this summer having completed the brand-new degree program. Not only have the students acquired profound knowledge of the language from the program, but they’re also moving forward with deep, newfound connections to their culture and community.

Nsyilxcn is an endangered Indigenous language spoken among the peoples of the Okanagan Nation, which includes bands in the Lower Similkameen, Okanagan, Osoyoos, Penticton and West Bank. The Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program is the first degree program taught in an Indigenous language in Canada, and has proven to be a critical resource for the recovery and reclamation of the language.

Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, knowledge keeper of the Syilx First Nation and Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at UBCO, shared how important it should be for everyone, not just those within the culture, to have accredited educational programs like this available.

“It shouldn’t just be the responsibility of our communities to try to develop and deliver language learning,” said Armstrong. “There’s a huge area of reconciliation that needs to be done in terms of language loss as a result of residential schooling. For me, it’s been lifelong work to try to find ways to support language learners to develop language learning programs because of the really serious decline in our language.”

One aspect that makes the Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program so unique is the framework that was developed by Indigenous scholars and experts, which was approved by the University Act, and can be implemented by any university in the province of B.C.

“It’s not just a regular bachelor’s degree. We needed a model in which the courses within the first two-years are full language immersion within people’s home communities,” said Armstrong. “The other academic courses typically required by universities for degrees, such as English, are completed in year three and four which is a very different way of creating an academic program. If your core is language learning in the language, then English and other courses aren’t necessary in the beginning stages.”

The first cohort of students all had unique reasons for taking the program, but many resonated with a common theme; language loss and a desire to connect with cultural identity.

Rose Caldwell, ɬk̓mpic̓a, from Westbank First Nation, shared that one of her biggest takeaways from the program is now being able to pass along the language and cultural knowledge to the younger members of her family.

“I learned so much [in the program], but it’s only the tip of my learning journey that will go on for the rest of my life, and I will bring my grandchildren with me on that journey,” said Caldwell. “It’s exciting to be able to pass the language on.”

Savannah Louis from the Okanagan Indian Band explained that she is the second generation within her family who didn’t learn the language, and the Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program is allowing her to keep the language alive through her education; something her grandmother had expressed deep gratitude and support for.

“Within my household my grandma was a fluent speaker, but she never passed it down,” said Louis. “Now I get to continue building things that will help other language learners, such as myself, and especially those who struggle with learning language and culture, which is very healing.”

Mourning Dove Hall, haʔmisms, from the Osoyoos Indian Band, shared that there are much broader impacts resulting from the program, especially within the different generations of her family and community.

“I’ve done a lot of work between myself and my mom, who is a residential school survivor. She’s a fluent speaker of our language, but she doesn’t speak it anymore. So even though I didn’t go to residential school, it came to me,” said Hall. “I decided to take this program to learn about my culture and my language, and to do it for everyone in my family who doesn’t want to speak the language because they still carry that fear and shame. Even though a lot of my family doesn’t speak the language or practice the culture, when they see me do it, it’s healing for them.”

Hall also had the unique experience of being pregnant with her son during the first year of the program, adding a layer of healing which she never anticipated.

“Through my pregnancy my baby heard my language. For his first years of life, he came to all of my classes and the language was all he heard. I didn’t get that experience, but my son did,” said Hall. “He’s already absorbing and hearing so much, participating in ceremonies and is out on the land. It’s what’s normal to him and that means everything to me.”

Another unique focus of the program was that the students regularly participated in teachings outdoors with knowledge keepers and fluent language speakers to connect with the land. Through this the students had the chance to explore a part of their cultural identity, which they may not have been able to do previously.

“When I started to get back on the land, taking part in ceremonies and going to cultural events, it was so uplifting and healing. I realized that this is where I needed to be,” said Louis. “This is where I was the strongest in my healing journey.”

Not only does the Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program provide the skills and tools for students to achieve an advanced level of written and oral proficiency in Nsyilxcn, but it truly dives into Indigenous ways of knowing and being; a knowledge-base that has been lost for so many.

“It’s a connection to identity and getting back to knowing who I am, where I am, why I am, and being able to rekindle all of that,” said Caldwell. “It creates an identity of hope and is decolonizing my way of thinking and being.”

To learn more about the Bachelor of Nsyilxcn Language Fluency program, click here.

Written by Kelsea Franzke

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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