KAMLOOPS — The number of First Nations people able to speak an Aboriginal language has slowly diminished over the years.
Residential schools played a large role in stifling Aboriginal culture, punishing students who spoke in their mother tongue.
Now, the Nicola-Similkameen School District is breathing life back into two local languages, Nłeʔkepmxcín , and Syiłxcín, offering classes to students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
WATCH: Full report by Jill Sperling
With every word they speak, a classroom of Grades 8-12 students at Merritt Secondary School are doing their part to preserve the Nłeʔkepmx language for future generations.
Mandy Na'zinek Jimmie teaches language classes at the High School and at Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. She said there are challenges associated with bringing back a language that was beginning to disappear.
"Some of the students, well the majority of students, if not all have been brought up with English," Jimmie said, "and when people are starting to learn the new language the thinking is different in Nłeʔkepmx compared to English. I find that students almost have to shelve English."
The languages are easier to pick up at a young age, which is why the school district expanded the program this year to include Kindergarten to Grade 4 students at Nicola Canford Elementary School.
"We've had the Grade 5-7 for many years," said Nicola Canford principal, Burt Bergmann. "That's been great, we've been happy about that success, but we just felt like if we really wanted to rescue the language, if that's our goal, if the purpose is to bring back a language, we need to get that language learning at a younger age."
Amelia Washington is an elder who teaches language classes at Nicola Canford. She said her students take great joy in learning the language of their ancestors.
"They're very enthusiastic, and they get very energized learning the language," Washington said. "They're so eager to learn, and they participate very well."
Students put their newly learned language to use through cultural activities in the community.
"We reach out to our communities and connect with our elders and resource people to support us with the different programs," said District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Shelley Oppenheim-Lacerte, "and of course the language and the culture is intertwined, so we bring our skilled and our knowledge keepers in to support many of our programs."
Nearly 45 per cent of students in the Nicola-Similkameen School District self-identify as First Nations, and they're now getting an opportunity that past generations weren't offered: the chance to learn and live their language and culture.
"I would say traditionally, if you look back years and years, the public system of this country has not been welcoming to our First Nations people," Bergmann said. "What a neat thing to be a part of that, to be somebody that gets to welcome that in. That's something that's very exciting for us as a community."
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