University of Saskatchewan linguistics professor Olga Lovick will be delving into Dene with speakers in Clearwater River Dene Nation and La Loche next month for a four-year project.
That comes as the communities welcome new efforts to bolster Dene. Those include the Dene Teacher Education Program and the Métis-Nation Saskatchewan supporting language classes for young students in La Loche.
However, local educators have also expressed concern over declining language-use. Those reports follow Statistics Canada finding in 2016 that 13,005 people spoke Dene, about 70 per cent of whom lived in Saskatchewan.
Lovick spoke to the StarPhoenix about her research, the differences between older and younger speakers, and reasons to hope for more Dene speakers in the future. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are you researching?
A: Dene is very vital in these communities. Almost everyone speaks it and young children still speak it.
But what we’ve noticed is there’s quite a bit of variation within the community of how people speak it. And also, which is very important for the community, the Dene spoken in those communities is quite a bit different from Dene spoken elsewhere in Alberta, Saskatchewan or the Northwest Territories.
(One goal) is to investigate the variation within the community, because it seems like one important factor is the age of the speakers. Young speakers speak quite differently from older speakers.
Q: How are you conducting your research?A: We’re planning on recording 100 hours at least of people speaking Dene across all age groups. That will all be transcribed and translated into English. All of this work will be done by local research assistants, as in people who live there, who speak Dene, who write Dene.
And then what the community will do, will take pieces of those recordings and use those to derive learning materials.
One of the things the community really wants is a dictionary. Or readalong books of stories where you can listen to the audio and read the words, so that children can learn to read Dene.
Q: How does language loss impact your research?
A: Younger speakers have often told me, “I”m fluent, but I’m not fluent like an elder.” I think one possible thing they may be trying to say is, that because Dene language is complex, they actually only learn the entirety of this complex system somewhat later in adulthood.
(Language loss) is the other possibility, actually. The possibility I don’t like as much. The fact that younger speakers don’t have this ability to produce these (complex forms) could actually be a sign of attrition, that the language is really being simplified by young speakers.
That is possible, and it will be really challenging to figure out which is which. One way in which we plan to research this is by tracking Dene over a long period of time. We started recording about five years ago, and we hope to in future projects keep recording.
We can see how (the same speakers’) use of language changes over time as they get older.
The language is being threatened at the moment as a late consequence of colonization, but because the community is so active with language maintenance, it actually stands a good chance of staying strong.