Evan Gardner and I recently returned to Portland, OR after being hosted in Vancouver, B.C. for three nights by Dustin Rivers, a Squamish Nation member, traditional artist, and community organizer who is passionate about the revitalization of his extremely endangered language, a language with 10-13 fluent speakers left, all over the age of 65.
On March 10th we attended his “Squamish Language Team” orientation night there, in order to put to work the last three months of our training and partnership: giving Dustin the skills necessary to train his community in the WAYK community language revitalization method.
The evening went fantastically. We had a wide range of ages, from young to old, and the players showed a natural affinity for the “we’ll all get there together” technique.
We were especially pleased by the feedback concerning the ease of the game play, it’s simplicity, and the fact that the players began having a real conversation almost immediately.
When speaking about WAYK in the past, I have tended to focus on the rapidity of language acquisition that it supports, the pure speed of achieving fluent proficiency.
But that night I really noticed something.
Understand first, Evan and I pride ourselves on the empirical approach the game takes. If something works, we’ll use it. How do we know if it works? Well, we try it out. We have no inhibitions about changing or improving the game. We have one overriding value, above all else: seeing the rapid emergence of fluent proficiency in a language community.
Languages are dying, folks. Right now. For those of us who feel this viscerally, and experience a real heartache over the loss and degradation of any indigenous or heritage language, you’ll understand why we take an almost ruthless, mercenary approach. We’ll do whatever it takes to support language revitalization.
And yet, we have discovered, that the most powerful forces that drives language revitalization, emerge in a room full of trust, joy, heart’s ease, play, acceptance, mutual discovery, collaboration.
We have discovered that the mercenary approach leads us inevitably to face the overwhelming truth: a loving community learns the fastest. The stronger the connection between the players, the faster the game plays, the faster we revitalize the language in ourselves and each other.
So, what did I notice that night?
I noticed a quality about the room, of warmth, and hope, and joy in the play of the language. I noticed a sincere desire to support and celebrate each other.
Everyone contributed. Every single player gave something to the game that made it even richer.
This was so real, and strong, that the end of the game caused the players to immediately settle on a weekly conversation night; Dustin tells us so many people mentioned the friends and family they plan to bring, he’s worried that 100 people will show up next time (we had 14 this night).
I found myself having to hold the tears back while shooting the video of the game(which should be up soon). It was a great pleasure and honor to be there. I sincerely thank each of the players for allowing us to show them “Where Are Your Keys?”, and for playing so fully. Thank you all.
We went for a walk once the evening was over (actually, to help Dustin plan an effective “Walk” for the language team to experience later), and I noticed Dustin laughing. I asked what he was laughing about.
“Tonight, I finally feel like I know my language isn’t going to die,” he said.
As a WAYK instructor, at first I could only think about all the community organizing work still to do, and how much help he’d need from so few remaining fluent speakers in the ensuing months. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, that deep down, I felt it too: